The successful launch on Wednesday of NASA's “Artemis I” mission represents a first step toward establishing a permanent human presence on the moon and toward the exploitation of what may be vast deposits of extremely valuable resources there and elsewhere in space. But before the mining begins, spacefaring nations could establish more-detailed rules about who will get to benefit from this bounty, and how.
After all, the United States is not alone in recognizing the natural resource potential of the moon and other celestial bodies. In recent years the moon has been visited by spacecraft from China, India, and Israel, and a South Korean orbiter is planned. This 21st-century space race could reward the winner(s) with untold quantities of highly valuable materials.
What natural resources might moon-mining yield? Not just precious metals like gold and platinum, or rare minerals, but, at least initially, mostly water. Water is actually one of the most valuable materials in space, and NASA has confirmed deposits of ice inside deep craters near the lunar south pole. Water extracted from the moon would be more than a life-support consumable for astronauts; it could also be converted into oxygen and hydrogen which, when combined, make a powerful rocket propellant. This could in turn enable the exploration of more-distant destinations, like mineral-rich objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and potentially lead to vast economic and societal opportunities for the nations involved.
Space mining is subject to relatively little existing policy or governance, despite potentially high stakes.Share on Twitter
But space mining is subject to relatively little existing policy or governance, despite these potentially high stakes. This, especially when combined with the return of great-power competition on Earth and in space, creates the potential for conflict among competing nation-states as well as among nongovernmental actors. Establishing governance structures could help to minimize the chance of conflict, while encouraging cooperation among all stakeholders and fostering the efficient utilization of these resources.
In support of its Artemis program, NASA has already created the Artemis Accords, described as “a shared vision for principles, grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to create a safe and transparent environment which facilitates exploration, science, and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy.” More than 20 other nations have already signed on to this framework.
Beyond multinational agreements like the Artemis Accords, the existing governance regime for all space activities is based in the aforementioned Outer Space Treaty (OST) and the body of interpretations and precedent attached to it. But the OST lacks specificity, and hails from a time when nation-states had just started to be active in space. And while the subsequent 1979 Moon Agreement states that neither the moon nor its resources “shall become a property of any state, international intergovernmental or nongovernmental organization, national organization, or nongovernmental entity, or of any natural person,” neither the United States nor any other major spacefaring nation has ratified it.
At the national level, multiple countries have independently developed policies to capitalize on these space resources and technological advancements. In 2015, Congress passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which asserts that U.S. citizens are “entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained … in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.”
To help set a precedent in this context, NASA recently selected four private companies to collect lunar samples and sell them to NASA, to “make sure that there is a norm of behavior” when extracting and using such resources. Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan have each followed suit with their own unilateral laws for space resource mining.
Russia and China likewise have developed ambitions in space mining, and have agreed to collaborate with each other on moon missions. But it is unlikely that they will join compacts such as the Artemis Accords. China has criticized the concept of safety zones laid out in the accords, and the head of Russia's space program has stated that the accords are too “U.S.-centric” to agree upon at present.
There are multiple potential futures that could arise from a lack of collaboration in space governance.Share on Twitter
There are multiple potential futures that could arise from a lack of collaboration in space governance. Recent studies, for example, by the Department of the Air Force (PDF) and the Aerospace Corporation, have explored these futures. Numerous organizations, including the RAND Corporation and the Secure World Foundation, have started thinking about requirements and options for sustainable space governance. The Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group has created Building Blocks for the Development of an International Framework on Space Resource Activities (PDF), but such concepts are nascent and require further development with additional stakeholders.
Without further cooperation and agreement among the major and minor space powers, multiple, competing governance systems may end up being established, further increasing the potential for conflict. There is a first-mover advantage to the nation, or group of nations, that takes the initiative in this arena and defines a more detailed governance framework. Thus, the time to address this issue is now, so that the United States and its allies can create a future where the use of deep-space resources contributes to prosperity, security, and freedom on Earth and throughout the solar system.
Jan Osburg is a senior engineer at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Mary Lee is a mathematician at RAND and inaugural Fellow for the RAND Center for Global Risk and Security.
This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on November 18, 2022. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.