Quirks & Quarks·Analysis

Canada just signed a new moon pact — is it a good idea?

Bob McDonald's blog: The Artemis Accords outline new rules for exploring and exploiting the moon, but they're for the U.S. and selected allies, not a multilateral UN agreement.

Bob McDonald's blog: The Artemis Accords outline new rules for exploring and exploiting the moon

NASA plans to return to the moon with its Artemis program in 2024 (NASA)

A new U.S.-led moon agreement that includes Canada and six other countries, could facilitate new missions to the moon, and even mining the moon and asteroids for profit.

Critically, the accords don't include the other major space-faring nations, including Russia and China. 

And two Canadian academics are concerned that this may violate the spirit of international space treaties by making the U.S. a "de facto gatekeeper to the moon." 

The agreements are called the Artemis Accords, and they're subtitled "Principles for the cooperation in the civil exploration and use of the moon, Mars, comets and asteroids for peaceful purposes."

Designed around NASA's Artemis program for returning to the moon, they outline how countries will conduct operations on the moon and include principles for regulating commercial activity such as mining. 

'U.S. policy puts the safe development of space at risk'

In a piece published in the prestigious journal Science, University of British Columbia astronomer Aaron Boley and political scientist Michael Byers argue that this U.S.-centric agreement could lead to runaway exploitation of lunar resources at the expense of science.

They also suggest that the Artemis Accords, which the U.S. is pursuing through bilateral negotiations, violate the spirit of existing international space treaties that have been pursued as multilateral agreements under the auspices of the United Nations.

Astronaut James Irwin, lunar module pilot, gives a military salute while standing beside the U.S. flag during Apollo 15 lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Hadley-Apennine landing site on the moon, August 1, 1971. (NASA/David Scott/Reuters)

In essence, the authors argue that the U.S. is trying to make itself the regulator of commercial activity in space, rather than treating space as a "global commons." 

Mining on the moon is not likely to be about digging up valuable minerals and returning them to Earth. It's about finding a source for resources in space that won't all have to come from Earth. 

Mined materials may be used on the moon itself. Lunar soil or regolith, for example, could be piled up on top of a lunar habitat to act as a shield against radiation from the sun.

Mining resources could impede scientific discovery

One of the more valuable resources could be ice, thought to be buried in deposits at the moon's south pole. Ice provides drinking water, and when broken into hydrogen and oxygen, air to breathe for the astronauts. Those two elements can also be re-combined as fuel for rockets. 

But that same lunar ice might also be a reservoir of critical scientific information. It's likely very old and could hold clues to the processes that took place in the early solar system that may have brought water to Earth. If commercial interests  get there first, that information could be lost as the ice is dug up and turned into rocket fuel. 

So who decides what activities we allow on the moon is a critical issue for both business and science. The Artemis Accords, suggest Boley and Byers, open the door to that decision falling to individual nations like the U.S., rather than the global community. 

International space treaties have been around since early in the space age, beginning with the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty.

A 'supermoon' full moon is seen above Harpenden, Britain, January 1, 2018. (Peter Cziborra/Reuters)

That agreement was mostly designed to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons in space. But it also had a provision that "outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means."   

That basically means no nation can own the moon or claim territory there. The United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom all signed that agreement.

In 1979, the UN drafted a new treaty called the Moon Agreement, again establishing the moon as "common heritage for mankind." It also stated that their environments should not be disrupted and that an international regime should govern exploitation of any lunar resources. However the U.S., Soviet Union and China chose not to sign this agreement.

Violating the spirit of the moon as a 'common good'

The new Artemis Accords introduce the idea that nations, or possibly private companies, may establish "safety zones" around their operation sites where no one else can interfere.

There may be good practical reasons for such zones, but these could function effectively as land or mineral claims, which seems to violate the spirit of the idea that the moon is a common good that nobody owns. 

Boley and Byers are also concerned that the Artemis Accords could lead to minimally regulated commercial development on the moon or in space that could lead to destructive or dangerous practices for the space environment.

In this illustration, people are seen working on the moon as part of NASA's Artemis mission, planned for 2024. (NASA)

Mining on the moon, for example, could raise vast clouds of lunar dust. Mining asteroids could change their trajectories, or produce rubble that could be a hazard to space navigation, or even to Earth itself.

In an interview, Boley raised the precedent of commercial satellites orbiting the Earth. Early in the space age there was no care taken — certainly no international consultation or regulation — over questions like disposal of satellites after they end their useful lives. 

As a result there are now tens of thousands of pieces of space junk circling the Earth that have become a hazard to other satellites and astronauts aboard the International Space Station. 

NASA tracks tens of thousands of pieces of space junk, including derelict satellites and large pieces of orbital debris. But smaller pieces can be lethal to astronauts or satellites too. (NASA)

We have seen what the combination of short term commercial thinking and minimal regulation has done to pristine landscapes on Earth. 

Commercial exploitation may well occur on the moon. But Canada may now have taken a position, through the Artemis Accords, about how that will be regulated, and it's outside of the historical multilateral agreements we've signed through the UN.

And that may mean that, as a country, we've taken on a new individual responsibility to ensure that space be used for the benefit of all humankind.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.