Artemis Accords: a step toward space mining and colonisation?


Digital & Data Governance

Picture of Susmita Mohanty
Susmita Mohanty

Director General of Spaceport SARABHAI

On 13 October 2020, a couple of weeks shy of the US Presidential election, NASA and seven nations signed the Artemis accords. The timing hints at a certain degree of rush in getting the accords signed before a potential regime change.

NASA views Artemis as its first step in the next era of human space exploration. The programme is carried out predominantly by NASA, United States commercial spaceflight companies contracted by NASA, and international partners including the European Space Agency (ESA), and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency (UAESA) among others.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine claimed the agreement would establish a “singular global coalition” to guide future expeditions to the Moon. Far from it, as some of the most accomplished space-faring nations including India, China, Russia, France and Germany are not signatories to this agreement, despite France and Germany being official participants in the Artemis programme by virtue of being ESA member states.

The signatories, other than the United States, include some Artemis partner nations. It is vital to note that three of these signatories have taken legal steps towards space mining. In July 2017, the Luxembourg Parliament voted in favour of an asteroid mining law. In November 2015, the US Congress too passed a bill that allows American companies to own and sell materials they extract from the Moon, asteroids or other celestial bodies. The UAE, with its nascent space programme, is also taking steps to regulate mining for resources in space so private companies can retain full ownership of their spoils.

Three out of the eight signatories to this new agreement are keen on off-Earth mining

Section 10 of the Artemis Accords focuses on ‘space resources’ noting that its use can benefit humankind, by providing critical support for safe and sustainable operations. It also notes that the extraction and utilisation of space resources should be executed in a manner that complies with the Outer Space Treaty and supports safe and sustainable space initiatives.

The Accords have been dressed up as a “practical set of principles, guidelines, and best practices to enhance the governance of the civil exploration and use of outer space”, but it would be myopic to not read between the lines. The Accords herald the beginning of a race to harvest resources on the Moon which seems to be gathering momentum. If the history on our home planet is anything to go by, commercial space resource mining can neither lead to a peaceful nor environmentally sustainable presence on the Moon.

Three out of the eight signatories to this new agreement are keen on off-Earth mining and have taken legal steps to ensure their companies can own and sell the celestial loot. It would therefore be unwise to view this agreement as a benign instrument to facilitate cooperation between friendly nations for sustainable exploration of outer space despite assurances made to that effect.

The honesty of intent in a recent quote by Dr. Mohammed Al Ahbabi, Director-General of the UAE Space Agency, who compared outer space exploration to the law of the sea in international waters where no state can claim sovereignty over the sea but commercial fishing operations can own and sell what they obtain, could serve well as the prologue to the new agreement instead of letting it linger in the margins – “If you don’t own the fish then why go to the sea?”.

We can start by treating the Moon as our eighth continent for purposes of legal and policy deliberation

We are living in a crucial moment in history where the West is re-examining its colonial and slave-running past, where the world is grappling with climate collapse and a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, where indigenous communities are being vocal about the need to restore and respect traditional ecological knowledge systems, where social and economic justice are back in the spotlight. It would be wise and timely for humanity to not hide behind anachronistic space treaties in this hour of reckoning, to instead discuss the repercussions of space resource exploitation with candour and concern for Earth’s immediate neighbourhood.

We can start by treating the Moon as our eighth continent for purposes of legal and policy deliberation. Antarctica, our seventhcontinent, could serve as a precedent to ensure we do not destroy a shared resource despite vested interests and pressure to monetise. If we refuse to act, we will wreck the Moon, much the same way we have wrecked low earth orbit with millions of manmade debris objects due to the absence of farsighted laws.

Who better than the European Union to play a lead role in crafting a bolder agreement with foresight that addresses space resource exploitation, ownership implications of the laws passed by individual nations, and come up with enforceable laws, acceptable to all COPOUS member states, not just a handful of US allies?

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