The darkest places on the
Because that’s where the water is.
The U.S. space agency, now equipped with a
Yet the U.S. and other countries with lunar ambitions can’t legally claim any territory or sovereignty on the moon. Amid the
“Nothing is simple,” Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita and former director at the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law of the University of Mississippi School of Law, told Mashable, in reference to lunar resource extraction. “There are currently no clear moon specific rules.”
But there ought to be, soon. “It is a fact: we’re in a space race,”
Credit: ESA / P. Carril
The need to harvest ice
The Outer Space Treaty bans ownership of the moon. But it allows nations to freely explore it (“…outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;”). Pioneering Apollo astronauts certainly used, and relied, on the moon. They used it to
But these astronauts stayed on the moon for, at most, a few days. Staying weeks, or longer, while supporting numerous people and diverse scientific operations will at some point require using lunar water. It’s inherent to the long-term exploration of another world. A cubic meter of water weighs well over a ton — a huge “shipping” challenge. So any explorers will depend on water resources at their destination (in addition to drinking water recycled from sweat and urine, like astronauts aboard the
NASA astronauts, then, might harvest moon ice even before there are clear laws on what resources a nation — for the needs of exploration — can extract from the moon. The space agency expects moon ice will
But what if a private company — not a nation — found bounties of ice in the lunar south pole, and excavated it? Can they claim the ice? Could they hypothetically sell it to a government, who might need it to make air and fuel, for a sizable profit? The Outer Space Treaty is silent about the private sector. This is where many issues over lunar resources arise.
Who can own lunar resources?
We’re starting to get a clearer picture of who will be able to claim, and sell, lunar resources.
Four nations have laws recognizing that a private company can extract resources in
“There are currently no clear rules.”
How might this regime work on the moon? No nation could point at a crater and claim the ice therein. But, a company could journey to a crater, set-up shop, and extract resources. And then, presumably, these private miners can sell the ice to whomever is buying. And those buyers will likely be deep-pocketed space agencies with
Credit: Wikimedia / B1mbo
But problems persist, because there’s no “Law of the Moon” overseeing the looming exploitation of a largely untrammeled natural body. “We need to build more concrete details,” emphasized von der Dunk. (Beyond the Artemis Accords, the
“This would theoretically open the moon to uncoordinated resource extractions,” said Gabrynowicz. “This could lead to unfavorable circumstances on the moon.”
Lunar laws might also limit territorial clashes, or even promote lunar harmony. Human history is dominated by fights over resources; we can prepare for this potential conflict on the moon. For example, a possible precursor to moon laws, the NASA-led Artemis Accords, allow for the establishment of “safety zones,” which are areas for an entity to work without “harmful interference.” It’s easy to imagine why a space agency wouldn’t want a mining company prospecting for ice amid their work site. The last thing anyone needs in the
As the space law experts Mashable spoke to underscored, coherent lunar laws will help avoid chaotic, on-the-fly precedents for how the moon will be harvested. A nation, under the guise of scientific exploration, could claim they have rights to all the ice in a coveted crater for an indeterminate time. A Wild West-style lunar land grab could ensue.
The new frontier is open. It’s barren, inhospitable, and as the probable site of a cosmic travel center and gas station, open to boundless opportunity.