The darkest places on the lunar surface have not seen light for billions of years. In these lightless craters the temperature can drop to minus 391 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s one of the most extreme places in our solar system, but that’s where NASA is headed.
Because that’s where the water is.
The U.S. space agency, now equipped with a powerful new mega rocket, is preparing to establish a base on the moon, a venture that will allow NASA to travel to even deeper space. harvest this ice, says the space agency(Opens in a new window), is crucial for making potable water, oxygen and fuel for rockets. From 2025, astronauts may land near tantalizing craters in the moon’s shadowy south pole. They will have their eyes on the prize. A NASA rover will too(Opens in a new window).
Yet the US and other countries with lunar ambitions cannot legally claim any territory or sovereignty on the moon. During the first space race in the 1960s, many countries around the world signed the Outer Space Treaty(Opens in a new window), which prohibits any country from owning parts of space. But harvesting alien resources is going to be a different story. It is now inevitable that natural resources are extracted from other worlds, especially if the heats of the 21st century space race(Opens in a new window) upwards. Who can take what into the new cosmic frontier and where? It’s a murky geopolitical realm – with some partial answers and many more questions.
“Nothing is simple,” Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita and former director of the University of Mississippi School of Law’s National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law, told Mashable, referring to the extraction of lunar resources. “There are currently no specific bright moons regulations.”
Why it’s still so challenging to land a spaceship on the moon
But it should be there soon. “It’s a fact: we’re in a space race,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently told Politico(Opens in a new window), while talking about China’s rapidly advancing technological space capabilities. And the race is, again, to the moon.
An artist’s concept of a lunar base with solar panels, farming pods and habitats.
Credits: ESA / P. Carril
The need to harvest ice
The Outer Space Treaty prohibits ownership of the moon. But it allows nations to explore it freely (“…space shall be free for exploration and use by all states;”). Pioneering Apollo astronauts certainly used and relied on the moon. They used it dump poop(Opens in a new window)driving around, dipping pipes into the ground, taking samples, play golf(Opens in a new window), plant flags(Opens in a new window), leave memories(Opens in a new window), perform experiments(Opens in a new window)and further.
But these astronauts only stayed on the moon for a few days at most. If you stay for weeks or longer while supporting countless people and various scientific operations, you will have to use moon water at some point. It is inherent in exploring another world for a long time. A cubic meter of water weighs more than a ton – a huge “shipping challenge”. Thus, all explorers depend on water sources at their destination (besides drinking water recycled from sweat and urine, such as astronauts aboard the space station).
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Artistic representation of astronauts working on the moon.
So NASA astronauts could be harvesting lunar ice even before there are clear laws about what resources a nation – for exploration needs – can get from the moon. The space agency expects moon ice “fuel” their lunar base(Opens in a new window). NASA wrote and signed it Artemis chords(Opens in a new window) – broad, non-binding principles for peaceful co-operation in space – including a concise section on “Space Resources”. From January 2023, 23 countries have signed(Opens in a new window). “The signatories note that the use of space resources can benefit humanity by providing critical support for safe and sustainable operations,” the hopeful document reads.
But what if a private company – not a nation – found treasure troves of ice in the south pole of the moon and dug it up? Can they claim the ice? Could they hypothetically sell it to a government, which might need it to make air and fuel, for a significant profit? The Outer Space Treaty is silent on the private sector. This is where many problems related to lunar resources arise.
Who can own lunar resources?
We’re starting to get a clearer picture of who can claim and sell lunar resources.
Four countries have laws recognizing that a private company can mine resources in space: the US, Luxembourg (a prosperous country with many aerospace companies), Japan, and the United Arab Emirates. Their approaches aren’t exactly the same, but the guiding interpretation resembles international law governing the high seas, explains Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
On Earth, no nation can occupy or claim most of the ocean (the “high seas”). A fishing vessel can freely navigate these international waters and harvest the rich fish and tentacles therein – as long as they are licensed by their home state and abide by relevant international laws, such as on pollution or species conservation. “Once the fish is in the fishermen’s net, they can sell it,” von der Dunk told Mashable. But no country can point to a part of the high seas and claim the fish; that would claim territorial sovereignty.
“There are currently no clear rules.”
How could this regime on the moon work? No country could point to a crater and claim the ice within. But, a company could travel to a crater, set up shop, and extract resources. And then these private miners can presumably sell the ice to whoever buys it. And those buyers will likely be big-bag space agencies with ambitions to visit the Red Planet, or perhaps metal-rich asteroids.
On this map, the dark blue indicates international waters or the ‘high seas’.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
NASA’s 13 Potential Landing Sites for Artemis III, Which Will Return Astronauts to the Moon.
But the problems remain, because there is no “law of the moon” overseeing the impending exploitation of a largely unfettered natural body. “We need to build more concrete details,” emphasized Von der Dunk. (Except the Artemis chords, the The United Nations has its own group(Opens in a new window) that tries to develop possible rules for extracting space resources.) Yes, people will dig into the moon. But it shouldn’t be an era of lunar destruction. The moon, of course, is a world of great scientific intrigue, with clues to how our solar system and planet came to be. Some regions should probably be protected. A lack of supervision portends excessive or unnecessary damage.
“This would theoretically open up the moon to uncoordinated resource extraction,” Gabrynowicz said. “This could lead to adverse conditions on the moon.”
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Moon laws can also limit territorial clashes or even promote lunar harmony. Human history is dominated by resource struggles; we can prepare for this potential conflict on the moon. For example, a possible precursor to lunar laws, the NASA-led Artemis Accords, allow the establishment of “safety zones,” areas where an entity can operate without “malicious interference.” It’s easy to imagine why a space agency wouldn’t want a mining company looking for ice on their job site. The last thing anyone needs in the moon’s murky south pole is miscommunication between people stumbling around in bulky lunar suits, resulting in serious injury. But critical questions remain unanswered: How big can a safety zone be? How long can someone exist? Who sets security zones? What happens if someone recklessly enters your security zone?
As space law experts Mashable spoke, coherent lunar laws highlighted chaotic, on-the-fly precedents for how the moon will be harvested. A nation, under the guise of scientific research, could claim indefinitely that they are entitled to all the ice in a coveted crater. A Wild West-style land grab could ensue.
The new border is open. It’s barren, inhospitable, and as the likely site of a cosmic travel center and gas station, it offers limitless possibilities.