Bilateral agreements renew the debate on the private exploitation of space resources.
Who owns the Moon? The long-standing international consensus was that no one should do that. But the United States and seven other states recently agreed on a policy change: No one is the owner whole Moon, although governments and private actors may possess natural lunar resources.
The National Aviation and Space Administration (NASA) recently announced a series of bilateral agreements called the Artemis Agreement. He was soon joined by the European Space Administration, which said that Europe intended to cooperate with NASA on the Artemis program. Through this program, NASA and its partner space agencies seek to develop a stable human presence on the Moon and travel to Mars.
The Artemis Agreement requires signatory states to abide by existing international law. In addition to the Agreement, there is no international agreement that explicitly allows ownership of natural space resources. As a result, signatories are operating in a legal gray area: with so few countries signing, it is unclear how practical the agreements will be.
The United States has long advocated widespread acceptance of this model of ownership, arguing that it does not violate international law. While President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order issued earlier this year, the United States rejects the idea that the universe collectively belongs to all Earthlings. Instead, presidential administrations advocate treating the universe in a similar way to the oceans of our planet – no country can claim sovereignty over them, but public and private actors can claim ownership of the ocean resources they extract.
Under this ownership model, federal law in 2015 allows U.S. corporations to “own, possess, transport, use, and sell” all space resources they collect in accordance with U.S. “international obligations”.
These obligations include the 1967 Space Treaty – a fundamental document of international space law. Article II of the treaty prohibits attempts to establish sovereignty over the Moon or any other celestial body. The signatories of the Artemis Agreement confirm the principles contained in the Space Agreement and claim that the extraction of resources does not constitute “national appropriation” of space.
Some space lawyers and scientists, however, are not so sure whether the Artemis Agreement is in line with the Space Universe Agreement. Since the Artemis program originated from NASA, they argue that the agreements are a means by which the United States can establish control over space activities. The agreements fulfill the letter of the Space Treaty, but opponents worry that bilateral agreements undermine commitment to resource sharing and collective action that animates the spirit of the Space Treaty. They predict that nations and commercial clothing will clash over the use of major mining sites.
Even without arguing over who gets the best parcel of lunar soil, national governments may not be able to withstand the explosion of commercial space activities. There is no international space agency to coordinate national regulatory efforts or oversee the emerging space economy. In addition, agreements lack an enforcement provision. Instead, the agreements require signatories to “politically commit” to abide by the principles of the agreement.
Proponents of the Artemis agreement oppose the new agreements ensuring the sustainability of space exploration and resource extraction. Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s current administrator, describes the agreements as “operationalizing” the Space Outer Space Treaty and providing a framework for future collaboration. Section 11 of the agreement, for example, requires signatories and private actors under their legal jurisdiction to establish “safety zones” around their areas of operation to prevent the work of one group from interfering with the work of another.
Emerging commercial space companies have long called for such a framework, arguing that existing international space law is too ambiguous to allow for peaceful and stable development.
The remaining source of ambiguity is the 1979 Moon Agreement, which is in conflict with the Artemis Agreement, but which no major space power has ever signed. An agreement on the Moon would prevent governments or private actors from claiming ownership of natural resources on the Moon or any other celestial body. Despite the lack of broad support in drafting, the Moon Agreement is currently the subject of active discussions within the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
Faced with the prospect of a revitalized international effort to ban private space activity, some space policy experts and commercial aliens have expressed relief at President Trump’s executive order that has made U.S. opposition to the Lunar Agreement unequivocal.
Although the position of the United States is clear, the international legal environment remains anything but clear. Given the Moon Agreement and other space management efforts still under discussion, it is difficult to predict how many other states will join the Artemis Agreement.
Russia has indicated it will not join the Artemis program, and federal law prohibits the United States from concluding bilateral agreements with China. In addition, with a viral pandemic still destroying lives and livelihoods across the planet, countries with less wealth may find that they cannot afford space agency funding.
Even if no other state joins the agreements, the agreements still introduced a new chapter in the history of mankind among the stars. Perhaps a robust space economy could emerge in the near future.