It's no secret that NASA and other space agencies will take us back to the moon this decade (stay this time!). The key to this plan lies in developing the necessary infrastructure to support a sustainable exploration and research program with crew. The commercial space sector also hopes to create lunar tourism and lunar mining, and to acquire and sell some of the moon's vast resources in the open market.
Ah, but there is a catch! According to an international team of scientists led by the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), there may not be enough resources on the moon to get around. Without clear international guidelines and agreements that determine who can claim what and where, the moon could quickly become overcrowded, overburdened and its resources robbed.
The team consisted of Martin Elvis, a CfA astronomer who led the study, as well as Alanna Krolikowski (Missouri University of Science and Technology) and Tony Milligan (King & # 39; s College London). The paper describing their findings recently appeared in the Royal Society A's Philosophical Transactions, entitled “Concentrated Lunar Resources: Imminent Impact on Governance and Justice”.
Elevation map of the moon with main craters. Photo credit: NASA / GSFC / DLR / ASU / M. Elvis, A. Krosilowski, T. Milligan (overlay)
As Dr. Elvis stated in a CfA press release that he and his colleagues were motivated by what they consider general assumptions about lunar exploration:
“Many people see space as a place of peace and harmony between nations. The problem is that there is no law governing who can use the resources and that there are significant numbers of space agencies and others in the private sector who want to land on the moon within the next five years. We looked at all the maps of the moon that we could find and found that not very many places had interesting resources and those that did were very small. This creates a lot of space for conflicts over certain resources. "
At the moment there are already contracts regulating activities in space. For example, there is the Space Treaty, which was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain in 1967 and has since been ratified by a total of 110 nations. This treaty not only prohibits the testing and use of nuclear weapons in space, it also prohibits nations from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies.
In addition, there are the newer Artemis agreements, which affirm the commitment of the participants to coordinate and notify one another about their activities on the moon. However, neither the Space Treaty nor the Artemis Accords prohibited private companies or individuals from declaring ownership of celestial objects, leaving the door open to things like asteroid prospecting and mining and lunar mining.
Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the moon. Credits: NASA
At present, discussions have centered on scientific and commercial activities on the moon and the rules of who can extract resources from where. Much of this stems from the fact that space agencies and commercial interests hope to harvest resources on-site – In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) – to meet their needs in a cost-effective manner. As Elvis explained:
"You don't want to bring resources from Earth for mission support, but rather get them from the moon. Iron is important if you want to build something on the moon; it would be absurdly expensive to transport iron to the moon. You need water to." survive; you need it to grow food – you don't bring your lettuce from Earth – and to break down into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for fuel. "
Interest in lunar resources and concerns about appropriation date back to the early days of the space race. Extensive research was conducted during the Apollo era to investigate the availability of resources such as water, iron, and helium. More recently, research has focused on continuous access to solar energy, water ice deposits, and possibly volatile compounds in permanently shaded areas on the moon.
The interest in the moon as a place for the extraction of raw materials is not new. Extensive research dating back to the Apollo program has examined the availability of resources such as helium, water and iron. Recent research has focused on continuous access to solar energy, cold traps and frozen water deposits and even volatiles exist in shady areas on the moon's surface.
The image shows the distribution of surface ice at the south pole of the moon (left) and at the north pole (right) as recorded by NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument. Credits: NASA
According to Milligan, Senior Researcher at the Cosmological Visionaries Project at King & # 39; s College London, the issue of resources does not address the real problem. "The biggest problem is that everyone is targeting the same sites and resources: governments, private companies, everyone," he said. “But they are limited websites and resources. We don't have a second moon to move on to. That's all we have to work with. "
There is also a risk that these websites and their resources may be more limited than currently believed. Because of this, scientists are eager to go back to the moon to get a clearer picture of resource availability before anyone starts looking for and extracting something. Elvis said:
“We have to go back and map resource hotspots with better resolution. Right now we have a few miles at best. If the resources are all contained in a smaller area, the problem will only get worse. If we can map the smallest of spaces, it will influence policy making, allow information to be shared, and help everyone play well together to avoid conflict. "
Currently, the main challenge for policy makers is to characterize the resources available at each individual site and it is clear that more research is needed to inform policy. However, according to Krolikowski, assistant professor of science and technology policy at Missouri S&T, there is already a conceptual foundation that (combined with good old-fashioned business acumen) could lead to a comprehensive legal system.
Conceptual illustration of permanently shadowed, flat ice craters near the moon's south pole. Credits: UCLA / NASA
For example, the Space Treaty and the Artemis Accords emphasize that activities on the moon must be in accordance with international law. They also hold the signatories accountable for the activities of third parties in areas in which they are responsible. In addition, there are tons of legal issues to be resolved, but efforts are made to ensure this is done prior to any lunar settlement.
For example, you have organizations like the Space Court Foundation (SCF), a nonprofit educational institution founded by lawyers and space experts to have a conversation about the evolving domain known as "space law." As mentioned in a previous article, the foundation also creates an archive that contains relevant documentation and the most current version of the space laws.
Another step, according to Krolikowski, is to convene the parties who will actively search for the identified resource locations over the next decade. One of the most important issues to address is loss aversion, where strategies can be developed to prevent overcrowding, interference, and other worst-case scenarios in individual locations.
In addition, knowledge can be gained by examining studies at comparable locations on earth. Krolikowski said:
“Examples of analogues on Earth suggest mechanisms for overcoming these challenges. Common pool resources on earth, resources for which no single act can claim jurisdiction or ownership, provide insight into mining. Some of these are global, like the high seas, while others are local, like fish stocks or lakes that several small communities have access to. "
In this illustration, an astronaut carefully descends the ladder and sets foot on the moon. Photo credit: NASA
So far, several space agencies have announced plans to create a permanent human outpost on the moon – including NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the National Space Agency of China (CNSA), Roscomos, and the Japanese Aerospace Research Agency (JAXA ). . There are also numerous plans to create bases that enable lunar tourism and other commercial ventures.
For each of these plans, the locations need to be explored early to determine if they have the right resource balance. These are not only necessary to set up and maintain the necessary structures, but also to ensure that they can meet the needs of their residents in a sustainable manner. However, with limited locations and resources available, there must be procedures in place to ensure we don't argue about what's there.
Just one more challenge to be tackled before humanity can put their boots and flags back on the moon. On the positive side, however, this shows how close we are to an "interplanetary civilization". The fact that we are at a stage where we need to consider how to resolve legal and territorial disputes on the moon shows how close we are to returning to staying there.
Regardless of how we resolve this matter, the next two decades are sure to be an interesting time to be alive!
Further reading: CfA, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.