Why the battle for the moon will happen right here on earth

When it comes to the moon everyone wants the same thing. Not in the sense of having common goals, but in the sense that all actors aim at the same strategic locations – government agencies and the private sector alike. Because whether you want to do science or make money, you need things like water and light.

Many countries and private companies have ambitious plans to explore or mine the moon. It will not happen sometime in the future, but soon – even in this decade. As we pointed out in our recent article published in The Royal Society Transactions, unless we find ways to deal with the situation immediately, this will create tension on the ground.

So far, much of the moon exploration and mining debate has centered on tensions in space between government agencies and the private sector. In our view, however, the urgent challenge arises from limited strategic resources.

Important scientific locations are also important for infrastructure construction by government agencies or commercial users. These places include “peaks of eternal light” (where there is almost constant sunlight and thus access to electricity) and continuously shaded craters in the polar regions where there is water ice. Each is rare and the combination of the two – ice on the crater floor and a narrow tip of eternal light on the crater rim – is a sought-after target for various players. However, they are only found in polar regions and not in the equatorial locations targeted by the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s.

China’s recent successful landing of Chang’e 5 was aimed at a relatively smooth landing site near the moon, but is part of a larger, phased program that aims to bring China’s space agency to the lunar south pole by 2024.

India attempted a more direct polar route, with its failed Chandrayaan-2 lander crashing in the same region in 2019. The Russian Roscosmos, which works with the European Space Agency, is also targeting the South Pole region to land in Boguslavsky Crater in late 2021 and 2023 as a test mission. Next, Roscosmos will target the Aitken Basin in the same region in 2022 to search for water in permanently shaded areas. A number of private companies also have ambitious plans to mine the moon for resources.

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Strategic resources that are not in the polar regions tend to be concentrated rather than evenly distributed. Thorium and uranium, which could be used for radioactive fuels, together occur in 34 regions that are less than 50 miles wide. Iron resulting from asteroid impacts can be found in larger areas 30 to 300 km in diameter, but there are only about 20 such areas.

And then there’s the figurehead of lunar resources that has been mined in dozens of science fiction films: helium-3 for nuclear fusion. It is sown by the sun into the powdery gravel of the moon’s surface and is present in large areas of the moon. However, the highest concentrations are only found in about eight regions, all of which are relatively small (less than 50 km in diameter).

These materials will be of interest to those trying to build infrastructure on the moon and later targeting Mars, as well as commercial exploitation (mining) or science – for example, creating telescope assemblies on the far side of the moon, far from the growing noise of human communication.

Then how do we deal with the problem? The Outer Space Treaty (1967) states that “the exploration and use of space should be for the benefit and interest of all countries and be the province of all humanity”. States cannot own parts of the moon, but they can still use them. It is unclear where this leads to disputes and withdrawals by private companies.

Proposed successors to the treatment, such as the Lunar Accord (1979), are viewed as too restrictive and require a formal legal framework and an ambitious international regulatory system. The agreement was not supported by major actors such as the US, Russia and China. Newer moves like the Artemis Accord – a set of guidelines surrounding the Artemis Crewed Moon Exploration Program – are seen as strongly tied to the US program.

Artist’s impression of a moon base. ESA / Foster + Partner, CC BY-SA

In the worst case, this lack of framework conditions could lead to increased tensions on earth. But it could also lead to unnecessary duplication of the infrastructure, with everyone building their own things. This would drive up costs for individual organizations and leave them with reasons to recover in ways that could jeopardize the opportunities for science and the legacy we leave behind for future generations.

Ways forward

Our best first answer may be humble and based on overlooked places on earth. Small terrestrial resource pools such as lakes bounded by several villages or fish stocks are often managed through approaches developed by the key actors involved in the field.

This suggests that a first step towards lunar resource governance will be to reach an agreement among users. This should focus on the types of resources in question, how their benefits should be distributed, and most importantly, the worst-case scenarios they want to avoid. For example, actors will likely need to decide whether to manage the Spikes of Eternal Light as a piece of high quality real estate or as a volume of energy production to be shared. It may also be worthwhile to decide on a case-by-case basis.

Another challenge will be to promote compliance with the governance rules set. To that end, moon users would be well advised to build shared facilities, such as landing and utility facilities, to act as carrots that can be held back from ill-behaved actors. Such partial solutions will be difficult to add after a country or company has made irreversible investments in mission designs. It is clear that now is the time to develop these approaches.The conversation

This article by Tony Milligan, Senior Researcher in Ethics at Cosmological Visionaries, King’s College London, is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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