Snapshots

The U.S. Looks to Mine the Moon on Its Own Terms

4 MINS READMay 6, 2020 | 19:48 GMT
Highlights

With the United States and China gearing up to send astronauts back to the moon and beyond, the competition of space resources between Washington and its rivals will heat up, as will the race to define the international rules, standards, laws and regulations governing the final frontier. But the White House's attempt to lead the development of space resources by negotiating a moon-mining pact with like-minded countries will struggle, and ultimately fail, to gain global acceptance. ...

The Big Picture

With the United States and China gearing up to send astronauts back to the moon and beyond, the competition of space resources between Washington and its rivals will heat up, as will the race to define the international rules, standards, laws and regulations governing the final frontier. 

The White House's attempt to lead the development of space resources with like-minded countries through an international pact will struggle, and ultimately fail, to gain global acceptance.

  • According to leaks cited in a recent Reuters report, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump will begin formal negotiations with key allies over a U.S.-drafted legal blueprint for mining on the moon in the coming weeks.
  • The Trump administration said the pact, called the Artemis Accords, will provide a framework of rules and regulations for companies selling resources produced in space.
  • The agreement will also reportedly aim to set up "safety zones" around operations to prevent damage and interference from other companies' and countries' operations that could be seen as a claim to sovereignty. 
  • The United States plans to start negotiations with its closest allies and partners with space exploration capabilities, including France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and the United Arab Emirates. 

As China's own moon program continues to see success, the United States is reasserting its dominance in space both from a private and public industry standpoint through new lunar and Mars projects.

  • Washington views China's successful lunar exploration program, known as the Chang'e Program, as a long-term attempt to establish Beijing's dominance over activities on the moon, including mining.
  • Developing lunar resources for use on the moon, as well as potentially Mars and asteroid projects, is also expected to eventually be significantly less expensive than the high per-kilogram launch costs of bringing resources into space from the surface of the earth.
  • To disrupt this strategy, the United States recently accelerated its own plans to send astronauts to the moon by 2024 for the first time since the end of the Apollo program in 1972.
  • For the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, Washington also plans to send astronauts into low earth orbit itself on SpaceX's first manned mission, which is scheduled for May 27.
  • U.S. commercial space companies including SpaceX are looking at long-term plans for missions to Mars and asteroids for exploration, resource development and manned projects as well — hoping to beat all of its competitors to the Red Planet.

Key U.S. allies, however, may object to Washington's negotiating strategy and the details within the Artemis Accord draft. 

  • Both the European Union and the United Arab Emirates have a lengthy history of cooperation in space with China and Russia, and would thus view any framework that only includes the United States and Europe but not the other two most important space powers as inadequate. 
  • The White House's plan to develop "safety zones" could mimic or be interpreted as a de-facto sovereignty claim over parts of the moon, which are prohibited under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. 
  • The European Union and perhaps even the United Arab Emirates are also likely to balk at U.S. efforts to quickly sign the pact. 

The United States will likely try to force China or Russia to agree to any U.S.-developed framework, but Beijing is particularly unlikely to do so. 

  • China has its own plans to develop a lunar colony by 2030 and has been the most active explorer of the moon in recent years. 

With both U.S. allies and China balking at an agreement, there will remain significant uncertainty over international law, as well as legal claims to ownership of moon resources and the rights to develop them. 

  • The lack of clarity over international rules will keep the private sector from conducting risky expensive projects to develop resources on the moon and other bodies, ultimately slowing down the global space pursuit. 

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