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US policy could thwart sustainable space development, researchers say

An artist's depiction of astronauts walking on the moon as part of NASA's Artemis program.
An artist's depiction of astronauts walking on the moon as part of NASA's Artemis program.
(Image: © NASA)

The United States' space policy threatens the safe and sustainable development of the final frontier, two researchers argue.

The U.S. is pushing national rather than multilateral regulation of space mining, an approach that could have serious negative consequences, astronomer Aaron Boley and political scientist Michael Byers, both of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, write in a "Policy Forum" piece that was published online today (Oct. 8) in the journal Science.

Boley and Byers cite the 2015 passage of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which explicitly granted American companies and citizens the right to mine and sell space resources. That right was affirmed this past April in an executive order signed by President Donald Trump, they note.

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The researchers also point to NASA's announcement last month that it intends to buy moon dirt and soil collected by private companies, and its plan to sign bilateral agreements with international partners that want to participate in the agency's Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration.

Artemis, one of NASA's highest-profile projects, aims to return astronauts to the moon in 2024 and establish a long-term, sustainable human presence on and around Earth's nearest neighbor by the end of the decade. Making all of this happen will require the extensive use of lunar resources, such as the water ice that lurks on the permanently shadowed floors of polar craters, NASA officials have said.

Boley and Byers take special aim at the planned bilateral agreements, known as the Artemis Accords. In promoting them, the U.S. "is overlooking best practice with regard to the sustainable development of space," the researchers write.

"Instead of pressing ahead unilaterally and bilaterally, the United States should support negotiations on space mining within the UN [United Nations] Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, the same multilateral body that drafted the five major space treaties of the 1960s and '70s," they write in the Science piece. (The most important of the five is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law.)

"Meanwhile, NASA’s actions must be seen for what they are — a concerted, strategic effort to redirect international space cooperation in favor of short-term U.S. commercial interests, with little regard for the risks involved," Boley and Byers add.

The researchers worry that the U.S. is setting an unfortunate precedent for other countries to follow, and that space mining and other exploration activities may therefore proceed in a somewhat careless and chaotic fashion in the not-too-distant future.

"That's kind of our worst-case scenario — that you have all of these different national regulations, and they can vary greatly, they allow for 'flag of convenience,' they cause disregard of the environment, large-scale pollution of orbital environments, of the surface of the moon in terms of waste materials and so forth," Boley told Space.com. "That's what we're worried about." 

He cited the growing space-junk problem as a cautionary tale. For decades, spacefaring nations have been licensing launches internally, without much international coordination, cooperation or long-term planning. In recent years, low-Earth orbit has become crowded enough with satellites and hunks of debris that collisions are a real concern. For example, the International Space Station has had to maneuver itself away from potential impacts three times so far in 2020 alone.

Not everyone agrees with Boley and Byers' assessment of U.S. space policy and its possible consequences. For instance, Mike Gold, the acting associate administrator for NASA's Office of International and Interagency Relations, takes serious issue with the duo's characterization of the Artemis Accords.

For starters, Gold said, that characterization is based on incomplete information, because the Artemis Accords haven't been released yet. NASA is still evaluating and incorporating feedback on the text from its international partners.

"The Accords are a far better document because of the international feedback," Gold told Space.com.

Gold also said that Boley and Byers' description of the planned bilateral agreements is wrong in multiple ways. As an example, he pointed to the following passage in the new "Policy Forum" piece: "The Artemis Accords are to include recognition of a right to commercial space mining subject to national regulation only (i.e., no need for a new multilateral agreement), as well as the right of companies to declare 'safety zones' around their operations to exclude other actors."

The Accords do make clear that the extraction and use of space resources are permitted, Gold said. But that's basically all they say on the topic, he stressed; there's nothing in the agreements about recognizing a right to commercial mining subject to national regulation only. And the Artemis Accords will be government-to-government agreements, so the part about companies declaring safety zones doesn't make much sense, Gold said.

Related: Who owns the moon? Space law and outer space treaties

In addition, "safety zones are simply an area where there should be notification as to what a country is doing and where it's conducting activities, and an obligation to coordinate to avoid harmful interference, as required by the Outer Space Treaty," he said. "To exclude actors from any zone of operation would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty. And it's certainly not in the Artemis Accords, which is grounded in the Outer Space Treaty."

The coming agreements will give some much-needed teeth to the mostly unenforceable Outer Space Treaty, which proponents of multilateral agreements should appreciate, Gold added. 

"The Artemis Accords, for the first time, actually create consequences for not following the Outer Space Treaty — that any nation that violates the principles of the Outer Space Treaty would not be able to participate in the Artemis program," he said.

The Accords do go beyond the Outer Space Treaty in some areas, Gold said. For example, the agreements will require participating nations to publicly release scientific data and ensure the interoperability of their hardware with that of NASA and other partners.

But overall, the Accords will reinforce and implement the 1967 treaty's principles, he added, stressing that they're "intended to establish a peaceful, transparent, safe and prosperous future not only for NASA and its partners but for all of humanity."

All of us should get a chance to see the Artemis Accords before too much longer; Gold said NASA aims to release them "soon."

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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  • TomMariner
    Oh please -- whoever wins the election will do the same thing we have been doing in the fifty years since the Small Step for Man -- buying votes with the money. If we wanted to have anything to do with the future of Space, it would have been done four decades ago and we wouldn't be having this conversation.
    Reply
  • Atlan0101
    Going through the U.N.'s All or Nothing type of communistic rigidity (iron curtain) guarantees the nothing we've seen over the past decades since the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty (administration after administration has followed along with it regardless of the fact we've never officially ratified the Moon Treaty). Revolutionary evolutionary Individuality (including the economic entrepreneurial) is the sole route of progress that has ever existed. Bureaucracy's deadweight is the heart of all or none. It is the whole of the U.N.

    Power corrupts. Absolute power, all or none power, commune power or nothing, corrupts absolutely. If I had enough money and enough time left, I would be willing to bet that neither China nor Russia will wait on the U.N. for anything having to do with Space, though both will demand vehemently that the U.S. wait. They will be as slow as all get out, at a hellish cost to their people since they go in totalitarian wrong directions far more often than not, but regardless they will try for Space.... And thus Space Power! Any weak U.S. administration will wait, whine, and lament, until it's too late... until China and/or Russia own the space frontier, space power, and control all the means to it.

    Has anyone here ever read Mahan's 'The Influence of Sea Power Upon History'? His included essay discourse on sea power 130 years ago applies ten times over, a thousand times over, to space power now and tomorrow, and if humanity reaches it on a permanent basis, forever more. The U.S., the West, Western Civilization (high dynamic civilization), needs to lead the way (with its way).
    Reply
  • Ruserious
    Hmm how's the "UN committee" approach worked on other things? I don't know maybe that human rights committee? No thanks.
    Reply
  • danielravennest
    TomMariner said:
    Oh please -- whoever wins the election will do the same thing we have been doing in the fifty years since the Small Step for Man -- buying votes with the money. If we wanted to have anything to do with the future of Space, it would have been done four decades ago and we wouldn't be having this conversation.

    The main reason we haven't done more the last 40 years is getting to space has been too expensive. The Space Shuttle first launched in 1981, 39 years ago. It was *supposed* to lower launch costs, but that didn't work out. All the other rockets have been throw-aways, and the hardware was expensive.

    So mainly what's been launched are science and national security payloads, and commercial ones where the product has zero mass. That's things like broadcast, communications satellites, weather, Earth observation, and navigation (GPS).

    Today, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are building rockets that throw away less or none of the hardware. The propellants for a rocket have always been a minor cost. So that's leading to cheaper access to space.

    Another thing that's happened the last 40 years is the known near Earth asteroids have increased from 51 to 23,800. Some of them are easier to reach than the Moon due to their orbit and that you don't need to consume propellant to land on them like you do on the Moon. They also can contain both water and carbon compounds, like the asteroid Bennu we are about to grab a sample from. Water + carbon can be converted to oxygen and methane to fuel your rockets. So asteroid operations can be self-fueling.

    Finally, for near-Earth operations out to the Moon, we now have much better computers, laser communications, and virtual reality. So robots can either operate themselves, or remotely in real-time by operators on the ground. That stuff wasn't available 40 years ago.
    Reply
  • dgrena
    Ridiculous article!
    Every indication is that the privatization of Space should have begin at least 40 years ago.
    i.e. Space X.
    Government should not be in the business of exploration or business. Because, politics not achievement will rule the decision making process. The U.N. is pretty much a useless organization.
    Sorry authors Socialism does not work! Please go back to applying for grants to study useless redundant subjects and let those of us that want to see the future continue.
    Reply
  • Lovethrust
    Either lead or get out of the way!
    Reply