According to sources familiar with the matter at hand, the Trump administration is drafting a legal blueprint for mining on the moon under a new U.S.-sponsored international agreement called the Artemis Accords.
The international agreement is the latest development in the effort to cultivate allies around NASA’s plan to put humans and space stations on the moon within the next decade. It comes at a time when NASA is playing a growing role in implementing American foreign policy.
The draft Artemis Accords is yet ot be formally shared with U.S. allies.
The U.S. administration along with other spacefaring countries see the moon as a key strategic asset in outer space. The moon also has value for long-term scientific research that could enable future missions to Mars – activities that fall under a regime of international space law widely seen as being archaic.
Named after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s new Artemis moon program, the Artemis Accords proposes “safety zones” which will surround future moon bases and is aimed at preventing interference or damage from rival countries or companies operating in close proximity.
The Artemis Accords also aims to provide a framework under international law for companies to own the resources that they mine, said sources.
In the coming weeks, U.S. officials plan on entering into formal negotiations with space partners including European countries, Japan, Canada and the United Arab Emirates – countries which the Trump administration sees as having “like-minded” interests in setting up mining stations on the moon.
Sources said, Russia, a major partner with NASA on the International Space Station, will not be an early partner in these accords, after an assessment from the Pentagon which views Moscow as being hostile for making “threatening” satellite maneuvers toward U.S. spy satellites in Earth orbit.
A member of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the U.S. sees “safety zones” as an implementation of one of its highly debated articles, which states that celestial bodies, including the moon are “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
“This isn’t some territorial claim,” said a source on the condition of anonymity. The safety zones – whose size would vary depending on the operation – would allow for coordination between space actors without technically claiming territory as sovereign, said the source.
“The idea is if you are going to be coming near someone’s operations, and they’ve declared safety zones around it, then you need to reach out to them in advance, consult and figure out how you can do that safely for everyone,” said the source.
TOOL OF U.S. DIPLOMACY
The Artemis Accords are part of the Trump administration’s plan to reach an agreement with “like-minded nations,” rather than route it through the United Nations because it would take too long and working with non-spacefaring countries is essentially unproductive.
With countries increasingly treating space as a new domain in the military, the U.S.-led agreement is also emblematic of NASA’s growing role as a tool in America’s diplomatic chest.
“NASA’s all about science and technology and discovery, which are critically important, but I think less salient is the idea that NASA is a tool of diplomacy,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine while adding, “The important thing is, countries all around the world want to be a part of this. That’s the element of national power”.
Participation in the Artemis program is contingent on countries adhering to “norms of behavior that we expect to see” in space, said Bridenstine.
NASA is channeling tens of billions of dollars into the Artemis program, which calls for putting humans on the moon by 2024 and creating a “sustainable presence” on the lunar south pole thereafter; private companies will be allowed to mine lunar rocks along with subsurface water, both of which could potentially be converted to rocket fuel.
In 2015, the U.S. had enacted a law which grants companies the property rights to resources they mine in outer space; no such laws however exist in the international community.
An international agreement must come before staking out “some kind of exclusive area for science or for whatever reason,” said Joanne Gabrynowicz, editor-in-chief emerita of the Journal of Space Law. “It is not anything any nation can do unilaterally and still have it be legal”.