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US seeks to change the rules for mining the moon

The date of: 2020-05-21
viewed: 1

Private industries have helped drop the cost of launching rockets, satellites and other equipment into space to historic lows. That has boosted interest in developing space – both for mining raw materials such as silicon for solar panels and oxygen for rocket fuel, as well as potentially relocating polluting industries off the Earth. But the rules are not clear about who would profit if, for instance, a U.S. company like SpaceX colonized Mars or established a moon base.

At the moment, no company – or nation – is yet ready to claim or take advantage of private property in space. But the US$350 billion space industry could change quickly. Several companies are already planning to explore the moon to find raw materials like water; Helium-3, which is potentially useful in fusion nuclear reactors; and rare earth elements, which are invaluable for manufacturing electronics. What they might find, and how easy the material is to bring back to Earth, remains to be seen.

Anticipating additional commercial interest, the Trump administration has created new rules through an executive order following a 2015 law change for how those companies might profit from operations on the moon, asteroids and other planets. Those rules conflict with a longstanding international treaty the U.S. has generally followed but never formally joined. The administration also is planning to encourage other nations to adopt this new U.S. perspective on space mining.

Who owns space?

In general, regions of Earth beyond any one nation’s control – like the high seas, the atmosphere and Antarctica – have been viewed by the international community as globally shared resources. That principle applied to space, too, until President Donald Trump’s executive order specifically rejected the idea that space was any sort of “global commons” shared among all nations and peoples of the Earth.

This step is the latest in a series of decisions by U.S. presidents over the last 40 years that have signaled the country’s decreasing willingness to share these types of resources, especially through an international body like the United Nations.

That is one reason why the U.S. has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, which was agreed to in 1982 and took effect in 1994.

A similar story played out regarding the moon.

Moon Treaty and international space law

Over the decades, the U.S. has sought to use its space policy in various ways. President John F. Kennedy, for example, considered turning the Apollo Moon-landing program into a joint U.S.-Soviet mission to promote peace between the superpowers.

Lyndon Johnson’s administration similarly saw space as a shared region, and in 1967 signed the Outer Space Treaty, which proclaimed that space was the “province of all mankind.” However, that treaty didn’t say anything about mining on the Moon – so when the U.S. landed there in 1969, the international community called for regulations.

The U.N.‘s eventual Moon Treaty declared the Moon the “common heritage of mankind,” and sought shared international control over resources found there.

However, that plan wasn’t very popular among advocates for a more commercial final frontier. In the U.S., a nonprofit group in favor of space colonization opposed the treaty, fearing it would discourage private investment. The treaty failed ratification in the U.S. Senate. Only 18 nations have, in fact, ratified the Moon Treaty among them Mexico and Australia, none of them major space-faring powers. But even though many countries seem to agree that the Moon Treaty isn’t the right way to handle lunar property rights, that doesn’t mean they agree on what they actually should do.

A new space race?

Allowing private control of space resources could launch a new space race, in which wealthy companies, likely from developed countries, could take control of crucial resources – like ice on the Moon, which could supply water for people or to fuel rockets – and profit handsomely.

That, in turn, would increase the likelihood of a military arms race, with the U.S., Russia and China developing weapons to defend their citizens’ space assets.

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