The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) may realise its plan to put humans and space stations on the moon within the next decade if the White House succeeds with its idea of lunar mining.
On Monday, US President Donald Trump called on world leaders to band together with a view to extracting natural resources from the moon, asteroids and even other planets.
A draft blueprint for a pact known as the Artemis Accords has outlined Trump’s efforts to regulate mining in outer space and establish “safety zones” to prevent interference from rival countries or companies operating in proximity.
Taking its name from NASA’s new Artemis moon program, the blueprint encourages international support for the “public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law”.
It could pave the way for private companies to claim ownership over the lunar resources they extract, including subsurface water which can be converted into rocket fuel.
“Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law,” said Trump in an April executive order issued by the White House.
“Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the US does not view it as a global commons.”
The mining mission could see humans set foot on the moon again in 2024, 52 years after the final landing of NASA’s Apollo program.
The Artemis Accords is sponsored by the US and aims to replace the unratified 1979 Moon Treaty, which claimed that the moon and its natural resources are the “common heritage of mankind” and that an international regime should be established to govern the exploitation of such resources.
Trump addressed that historic document in last month’s executive order.
“The US does not consider the moon agreement to be an effective or necessary instrument to guide nation states regarding the promotion of commercial participation in the long-term exploration, scientific discovery, and use of the moon, Mars, or other celestial bodies,” he said.
As the US, Russia and China were not signatories to the Moon Treaty, it never became international law.
Russia left out
In the coming weeks, the Trump administration is reportedly planning to ask “like-minded countries” such as Canada, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and European nations to sign the Accords.
“American industry and the industries of like-minded countries will benefit from the establishment of stable international practices by which private citizens, companies and the economy will benefit from expanding the economic sphere of human activity beyond earth,” Trump said.
But Russia – arguably one of the world’s space powers and NASA’s partner on the $232 billion International Space Station – has been left out of the Accord, due to the Pentagon’s belief that Moscow has been “increasingly hostile” to US spy satellites in earth orbit.
The Kremlin has made no secret of its ambition to mine the moon, with reports as far back as 2014 disclosing plans to traverse outer space in search of rare earth elements.
More recently, it created the Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities to oversee and implement a comprehensive reform of Russia’s space industry.
Deputy director general on international co-operation Sergey Saveliev did not praise Trump’s moon mining ideas.
“Attempts to expropriate outer space and aggressive plans to actually seize territories of other planets hardly sets countries (on course for) fruitful cooperation,” he said.
“History knows examples of a country starting to seize territories for its own benefit – everyone remembers the outcome.”
The US has also intentionally kept China out of its lunar plans and at arm’s length following frosty relations between the two in recent years.
Some outlets have suggested the move is Trump’s way of making China pay for damages and deaths caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.
But China has become increasingly determined to expand its space capabilities – an idea backed by president Xi Jinping’s 2016 declaration that the nation would set its sights on becoming a “space giant”.
Specifically, China views the moon as a potential source of energy security as it has abundant supplies of helium-3 – a light, non-radioactive fuel which can be used for nuclear fusion and which is non-existent on earth.
Research indicates there are at least 1.1 million metric tonnes of helium-3 on the lunar surface, which would be enough to power human energy needs for up to 10,000 years.
According to China’s space experts, three space shuttle missions could bring back enough fuel for the entire world.
Over the years, NASA has identified more than 12,000 asteroids within around 45 million kilometres of earth, each of which could hold iron ore, nickel and precious metals in much higher concentrations than are found on earth.
It is believed the moon in particular plays host to rare earth elements used in smartphones, TVs, computer screens and other modern electronics.
China already dominates the global supply of rare earth metals and exclusive access to the moon’s supply could provide it with considerable economic advantages.