NASA plans to launch the Artemis I lunar mission on Saturday, September 3, after the first attempt earlier in the week was called off at the last minute due to an engine problem.
The mission is an exciting step toward returning humans to the moon for the first time since 1972. But this time it’s not just about putting our footprints on lunar dust: it marks the beginning of a new space race for lunar resources. This time, everyone wants to mine the moon.
Back to the moon
So much about Artemis is noble and inspiring.
Artemis I is the program’s first mission, and will do a 42-day uncrewed test flight to orbit the Moon and return to Earth. The flight will use a new launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket currently in operation in the world.
On board will be three mannequins made of materials that mimic male and female biology. NASA will use the mannequins to test the comfort and safety of the launch vehicle and spaceflight capsule for humans.
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There are also several other experiments on board, and a series of small satellites will be launched to provide data when the capsule approaches the moon.
Lessons learned from this mission will be applied to Artemis II, the mission planned for 2024 that will see the first woman and first people of color reach the moon.
A new space race?
However, humanity’s return to the Moon is not just about exploration and the pursuit of knowledge. Just as the space race of the 1960s was driven by Cold War geopolitics, today’s space programs are underpinned by geopolitics today.
Artemis is led by the United States, with the participation of the European Space Agency and many other friendly countries including Australia.
China and Russia are cooperating in their lunar program. They plan to land humans in 2026 and build a lunar base by 2035.
India is also working on a robotic lunar lander and a lunar spaceflight program. The UAE plans to launch a lunar lander in November this year as well.
All of these programs aim to get astronauts on Earth to make short visits to the moon. The long-term goal of the race is to obtain the resources of the moon.
Resources on the Moon
Water ice has been found in the southern regions of the Moon, and it is hoped that some gases that can be used for fuel will also be extracted.
These resources could be used to support long-term human habitation on and near the Moon at lunar bases, as well as permanent lunar orbiting space stations, such as NASA’s planned Gateway.
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The Australian Space Agency is supporting Australian industry to be part of the Artemis program and later planned US flights to Mars. Australian scientists are also developing lunar modules to aid in lunar mining efforts.
Ultimately, what we learn on the Moon will be used to advance to Mars. But, in the near term, the emerging lunar economy and lunar politics will be dominated by the emerging lunar economy and lunar politics.
What are the rules?
In the next five years or so, we can expect to see massive political tensions build up around this new race to the moon.
One question that remains unanswered: What laws will govern activities on the Moon?
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the appropriation of space “on the pretext of sovereignty, occupation, or by any other means.” It is not yet clear whether mining or any other form of resource extraction falls under this ban.
The United Nations has a working group that aims to develop a multilateral consensus on the legal aspects of space resource activities.
However, in 2020, the United States came out ahead of the UN process by concluding the Artemis Accords, which stipulate that resource extraction will occur and that it is legal. Twenty-one countries, including Australia, have signed these agreements with the United States, but they are far from universally accepted.
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Another related treaty is the Moon Agreement of 1979, signed by 18 countries including Australia. This agreement states that no entity can own any part of the Moon, and obligates us to establish a regulatory regime for lunar mining “at a time when the technology is about to become feasible.”
So Australia lies between moon rock and a difficult place in terms of the role we will play in developing these new laws. But the process of international law-making and consensus-building is slow: an actual practice is likely to be established in the next few years, and decisions about how to govern it will come after the fact.
Technical and political challenges
There is some poetic perfection in NASA after it chose the name “Artemis” for this new lunar quest. Artemis is the Greek goddess of the moon, and the twin sister of Apollo (the namesake of NASA’s lunar spaceflight program in the 1960s).
Artemis declared that she never wanted to marry because she did not want to become the property of any man.
Even if ownership of the Moon cannot be claimed, we will see competition over whether parts of it can be extracted. There is no doubt that scientists and engineers will solve the technical challenges of returning to the moon. Resolving legal and political challenges may be more difficult.
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