The Moon is about to become a very busy place, with multiple countries and private companies planning missions in the next few years. It’s been decades since the Outer Space Treaty was negotiated. It’s time for the Artemis Accords.
Outer Space Treaty (United Nations)
Artemis Accords (NASA)
The Antarctic Treaty (Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty)
Tiangong program (Wikipedia)
Near the China-Bhutan-India border, a new village is drawing attention to old disputes (South China Morning Post)
The Expanse (imdb)
Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services
Fraser: Astronomy Cast, Episode 587: The Artemis Accords. Welcome to Astronomy Cast – a weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of The Universe Today and with me, as always, Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of CosmoQuest. Hey Pamela, how are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well, I actually found one small glorious thing in this year that shall not be named.
Pamela: There are a bunch of publishing houses that are allowing their copyrighted works to be read out loud. And, so, I’ve been reading on Twitch The Hogfatherby Terry Pratchett so this is why you see around me rather weird decorations. It’s also because I just decided to leave the Halloween ones up and just decorate the Halloween for Christmas. But I’m having great fun over on Twitch.
Fraser: For the podcast listeners, Pamela has a dragon skull behind her surrounded by red and white little –
Pamela: It’s a wreath of Christmas balls.
Fraser: –blobbies. Okay, and then she’s got a Christmas tree with a dragon on top – a skeletal dragon on top.
Pamela: It’s true, it’s true.
Fraser: Merry Christmas. And, Happy Boo Year. Good, and so where are you reading this book?
Pamela: I’m doing this on Twitch.tv/starstryder, Tuesday through Thursday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Pacific and you can catch the first three readings in the Video on Demand and it’s just fun. It’s just fun.
Fraser: Yeah. And, people do need to act quickly because I think you have to delete all this by the end of the year, right?
Pamela: Yes, so the videos can only be online until December 31st, and this is all thanks to permission from Harper Collins, and I’m going to take advantage of this one small glorious thing for every moment that I can.
Fraser: Okay, let’s move on. So, the Moon is about to become a very busy place with multiple countries and private companies planning missions in the next few years. It’s been decades since the outer space treaty was negotiated, it’s time for the Artemis Accords. All right, so what are the rules? Give me the Moon rules.
Pamela: So, so the basic Moon rules now are a bit controversial. So, the outer space treaty was signed in 1967, this is an international cooperative agreement. It was done as agreements should be through the United Nations, and the Artemis Accords are NASA’s way of adding specificity –
Pamela: –to the somewhat vague – that were written vague on purpose, outer space treaty.
Fraser: So, let’s talk about, let’s go to the bedrock first.
Fraser: Let’s talk about the outer space treaty and then we can layer on the Artemis Accord.
Pamela: Okay, so the outer space treaty says space belongs to no one, and is for everyone to share and explore. Don’t make a mess of it, work together.
Fraser: No nukes, no weapons.
Pamela: No weapons, and if someone needs rescue, rescue them people. Be kind. It basically boils down to don’t make a mess of space and take care of each other, folks.
Fraser: Right. So, I mean specifically, let’s talk about some of these ideas because I think that the way exploration in space, just in general whether it’s on the Moon or Mars or any of theseplaces, how would that differ from the kinds of rules that we face here on Earth?
Pamela: So, with the exception of Antarctica, nations have laid claims to every square inch of surface on our planet with some of those square inches being much in dispute. And, when a nation owns a certain body of land, they are able to take advantage of its full mineral rights. Now, oceans are considered international areas. This means that everyone can go out and take advantage of oceanic resources within the limits of U.N. agreements and treaties.
Pamela: There are people who ignore certain things. So, for instance, Japan, Norway and a few other nations have said they’re not going to –
Fraser: Whales are tasty.
Pamela: Yeah, whales are tasty, basically. But in general, mineral rights, mining rights belong to the nations that own the land. And, the way the outer space treaty was put together is it was essentially – and this is where you look at the spirit of the law, as written in vague language.
Fraser: Right, right.
Pamela: The spirit of the treaty was space is not out there for any one nation to prosper from when it comes to things like Moon, Mars, and it was worded as no nation, and this is where things start to get trickstereywith the Artemis Accords.
Fraser: Right, but the, and I mean, when you read the outer space treaty, what they were really concerned about, they weren’t really concerned about who’s going to set up house on Mars. They were really concerned about making sure that people didn’t build nuclear weapons in space and use them to fly over their enemies every 90 minutes, they’d be able to deploy nuclear weapons in minutes. They wanted you to take the full 45 minutes to allow mutually assured destruction, while if you’ve got a satellite filled to the brim with nukes on board and it flies over another nation, you can destroy that nation in a minute.
Pamela: And, there was also the spirit of they didn’t want any one nation doing, like we saw with Portugal, Spain and England during the 15 and 1600s and just going out and sticking flags everywhere that doesn’t have a flag.
Fraser: Right, I claim this Moon in the name of Spain.
Pamela: Exactly, exactly. So, it was this twofold we don’t want to give any one the high ground in military exploits, and we also don’t want to give anyone the ability to claim an entire world for a given flag.
Fraser: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. And, then you talked briefly about, like, if people need help, but it’s more significant than that, than just like if someone needs help you have to go help them. It’s like your house is their house on the Moon.
Pamela: Yes, yes. So, this is – and there’s similar agreements in Antarctica. So, if you’re travelling through Antarctica and you need to duck into somebody’s building you can totally duck into somebody’s building.
Fraser: Yup, yup. Eat their canned food.
Pamela: Right, and this is again where the Artemis Accords take things in a new direction.
Fraser: Okay, all right. You’re chomping at the bit.What about, can I have an army base on the Moon?
Pamela: You’re not supposed to.
Fraser: Can I have an army base filled with nuclear soldiers, atomic soldiers? That’s out.
Fraser: That’s back to nuclear weapons. All right.
Fraser: Okay, so it’s all fairly rough, so then what are the Artemis Accords?
Pamela: Okay, so outer space treaty, international multilateral agreement. Artemis Accords came out of an executive order from Trump about how people can partner and what is expected of people who are partnering with NASA on the Artemis mission to the Moon. And, this is a bilateral series of agreements between the United States and seven other nations. So, this means there is an agreement between U.S. and Canada, U.S. and Japan. And, this really makes the United States the gatekeeper on all of the things within this document, which is a document that was written by NASA in collaboration with the National Space Society and other organizations for the exploration of space.
Pamela: And, it claims to be adding specificity to the outer space treaty. And, some of the things that it details are completely fine. So, it says things like, essentially don’t desecrate historic sites, don’t walk up to an Apollo lander on the Moon and do bad things to it, do not walk up to a Luna mission on the Moon and do bad things to it. These are historic sites, leave them be people.
Fraser: Don’t kick a flag over, yeah.
Pamela: Right,exactly. It takes the take care of one another and adds the when you’re building things, do everything you can to build everything so that people from different nations can all take advantage of this. Which, this isn’t a new idea, ever since it was realized that the U.S. and Russia used completely different docking systems.
Pamela: It’s understood this is a problem, don’t do this people.
Fraser: Yes, standards are a good thing.
Pamela: Yeah, and so Russia has already asked that the Lunar gateway please be compatible with their systems, even though they’re not part of the Artemis Accords.
Fraser: Right, right, right.
Pamela: But there’s other stuff that starts to get a bit more –confusing on well what exactly does this mean? So, there’s the peaceful purposes,still there. There’s the commitment to transparency of scientific information, still there. This basically means if you learn something, share what you learn. There’s rescue and return, there’s the build things that are compatible, but then we start to get into the and when you build that thing, register where you put it. That’s your place you registered it.
Pamela: There’s the good thing of don’t make a mess. That’s still there and it’s spelled out, but then it starts to get into the mining activities. And, the reason this was put it is nominally because there was concerns that if we’re goingto the Moon and we’re mining regolith for whatever reasons you’re gonna mine regolith –
Fraser: To breathe.
Pamela: –that that might break the outer space treaty. So, the way it was put in was commercial agencies. So, here megacorporations?
Pamela: They’re welcome to mine. And, in the name of safety, they can delineate an area around their claim that no one should enter.
Pamela: So, the thing is –most commercial space companies are U.S. registrants.
Pamela: And, so this is essentially the United States saying hey, all these commercial companies that we have, they can fully take advantage of all the resources of the Moon, bring them back to Earth. They can register their locations, delineate zones around them that no one’s supposed to enter, and those resources belong to those companies that – oh yeah, they happen to be United States companies.
Fraser: Mm-hmm. So, let’s make a concrete example. So, let’s say that SpaceX sends a starship to the Moon, it lands and starts harvesting lunar regolith.
Fraser: For oxygen, for return – for rocket fuel for return flight.
Fraser: What kinds of restrictions could they put? They could say this is the space that we’re going to be harvesting these materials from so you can’t get in the way of our harvesting?
Pamela: Yes, yes.
Pamela: And, they can essentially say this area of the Moon is registered to our interests with this safety zone around it, and because it’s registered with a safety zone around it, no one else is supposed to enter that area.
Fraser: Right, for safety.
Pamela: But this can also get turned around, where you can imagine you start having acme lunar mining company that is up there with its robotic fleet that is going from permanently dark shadowed region and craters to permanently dark shadowed region in other craters. And, leaving behind robot miners with safety perimeters delineated around them essentially claiming all the easily accessible water on the Moon for the company that builds the first robotic fleet capable of doing this.
Fraser: Right. Now I think that we know that the continued exploration of the solar system is going to require in-situ resource utilization. Like, you’re going to need to be able to crunch up the little regolith, pull out the metal, pull out the oxygen, maybe find some water in there, mix it all together, make yourself some drinking water, rocket fuel, breathable air, et cetera.And, use that as a way to then as a jumping off point. What are kind of the limits? Like is there some, any limit that just says okay, this is an amount that is a reasonable amount to support exploration or can you just bring back all the helium-3, can you mine the entire surface of the Moon for helium-3 and bring it all home?
Pamela: So long as you register your sites, yeah. And, you do it through NASA, and this is where it starts to become ugly. Because NASA has said that through a Trump executive order and these bilateral agreements, that the only way a nation will be allowed to partner with NASA are in the Artemis program and the deep space gateway and the return to the surface of the Moon by humans is if they sign off on the Artemis Accord.
Pamela: So, you have nations like Luxembourg and the UAE who –
Fraser: Canada, we signed.
Fraser: Yup, everything within arm’s length – everything within arm’s reach.
Pamela: Exactly, and so these are nations that are basically like okay, we want to go, we’ve worked with NASA before. This is how our astronauts get to space. We’re going to sign on. And, this bypasses the normal way of doing things through the United Nations Space Office in Vienna. And, instead of having multilateral agreements where everyone negotiates fairly, instead the bilateral agreements allow favoritism in different ways. And, it’s the kind of thing that led to an international team of scientists writing a paper in the journal Science basically saying look, everyone needs to sit up and pay attention to this, because this is concerning.
Fraser: Yeah, there are, I mean the paper said that there were limited resources to go around and if people get really excited about exploring the Moon, we could find that it runs out of resources pretty quickly. Now there were two significant non-signatures of the Artemis Accords. One was a little surprising, and the other was completely expected.
Pamela: So, so Russia and China are not signatories –
Pamela: –and I don’t know if either of them are particularly surprising, so I’m wondering if there’s one I don’t know about.
Fraser: Well I know, I would’ve expected – oh the Ukraine signed on by the way –
Fraser: –just, just in the last minute. But I would’ve expected Russia to begrudgingly agree to what the U.S. was proposing because they’re potentially gonna be partners in the Lunar Gateway as well. And, so, you can anticipate them also being partners in a future Lunar base.
Pamela: And, this is where I think the specific language that said commercial companies could keep the resources they mined where Roscosmos is not really a commercial company, was kind of a yeah we can’t sign that for Roscosmos and Russia. If they had signed, it would mean Russia can’t take advantage of resources on the Moon.
Fraser: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Pamela: And, I – if I was them also would not have signed.
Fraser: Right, right. And, then of course, as we said, and the other obvious one is China who not only has – I mean they have no dealing with the International Space Station, they have no, really no interactions with the international space community whatsoever.
Pamela: And, it isn’t their choice.
Fraser: No, no, absolutely not. No, they have been locked out of a lot of stuff, and in fact –
Pamela: Yeah, by the U.S. Congress.
Fraser: –and in fact they are in the process of setting up their version, essentially a parallel version of NASA’s work in the International Space Station with their own Tianhe, Tianhe is the first part of their space station. They’re gonna be launching next year, so China will have its own international space station, and they have signed on partners from around the world to send astronauts and to build modules for their version of the space station. So, you’ve got this parallel effort with China and I mean you say they were locked out by Congress, that’s true –
Pamela: I’m not saying it was only Congress –
Pamela: –but I know that Congress specifically has said NASA is not allowed to work with China.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah that in many cases U.S. companies aren’t allowed to work on various security levels and that extends to other countries as well.
Fraser: But, you know, it’s not like China’s hands are completely clean in this either, so I think it’s a mess right now, and it makes sense that they didn’t – that China and Russia didn’t sign, that –
Pamela: Yeah, and it’s going to become more of a mess –
Pamela: –as the treaty for the ISS comes to an end in the coming years, and it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens and what nations decide or don’t decide to maintain activities on the ISS.
Fraser: Right. And, so where we stand today, it’s funny, as we’re recording this, China has sent a mission to the Moon that, like, launched on a rocket, flew to the Moon, detached – left an orbiter in orbit around the Moon, a lander flew, descended down to the surface of the Moon, grabbed a bunch of samples, then jumped off the Moon again in an ascender stage, docked with the orbiting transfer stage –
Pamela: While we’re recording, so we don’t know if it was successful yet.
Fraser: –yeah, this is what’s happening right now. Transferred the samples, and then at some point in the next, by the 16th it’s believed, that the samples will then be carried back to Earth on a return capsule. Does that sound familiar to you? Does that sound like the Apollo missions just in miniature?
Pamela: Or the Luna missions.
Fraser: It’s the exact structure of the Apollo landings, except with robots and dirt and regolith samples as opposed to astronauts getting out. But that’s just, but they also know how to launch astronauts. So, the Chinese are absolutely in the process of planning out their human lunar landings. As are SpaceX, as are the Europeans, as are the Russians, like, the Moon is going to be a busy place.
Pamela: And, this is where, I guess, my appeal would be as we look at a change in global landscape, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could switch from the Artemis Accords to a new updated outer space treaty that starts to have the specificity that folks are looking for? But is that multilateral agreement, that it’s so much easier for nations to sign onto and that gives everyone an equal footing as we begin this exploration because let’s face it, different nations explore space in different ways. And, what do you call things like the European Space Agency that are governmental – intergovernmental agencies? It’s not commercial, it’s not a government. But currently, because it’s not commercial, it’s not allowed to mine.
Fraser: How far do the Artemis Accords extend? Like, do they cover the rules for Mars? Do they cover the rules for asteroids? Or is it just the Moon for now?
Pamela: Currently, it’s just the Moon.
Pamela: But I don’t think anyone isn’t concerned it will be extended further.
Fraser: Right. So, then I mean, let’s fast forward a hundred years. What does the future of human exploration and exploitation of the solar system look like under the Artemis Accords? What do you think?
Pamela: Well, if it stays under the Artemis Accords, we’re going to end up in a situation where we have non-signators dashing off to claim rocks as their own and protecting them while the U.S. and partners that we agree to let sign go out and work together to claim up other things –
Pamela: –and allow the new space version of the East Indian Trading Company to go out and take resources. I’m hoping that we can change that and instead move to a model that is more like what we have for the world’s oceans, where there are multilateral agreements and bilateral agreements that help limit bycatch and –
Pamela: –preserve land and say and here be where we drop the international cables.
Pamela: That kind of multilateral agreement can only help everyone more safely and with less conflict. Explore the solar system, which is so much bigger than any one nation.
Fraser: Yeah, I’m sort of of two minds. Like, like on the one, you know, as the rampant capitalist of the team here, I am all for the exploration and exploitation of some of the resources of the solar system – I’m actually a big fan of this idea of leaving the Moon, Mars, Titan, most of the beautiful places in the solar system, leave them as wilderness.
Fraser: And, then we can just grind up some, most of the asteroids and get almost everything that we require for hundreds and hundreds of years. But I think you’re right, that it does feel like a landgrab, like if there isn’t some agreement, some complete agreement that everyone under it signs, then it’ll be a landgrab, and –
Fraser: –anyone who hasn’t signed it and has the capability to acquire that territory will do so. That said, it’s hard and unsustainable for the foreseeable future to do any of this. And, so, we are a hundred years from having to actually worry about the outcomes of this, but it makes sense to put it in now.
Pamela: Well, but we do need to practice it on the Moon before things get too bad and, this is where I really want to see it the same way we look at the oceans where there are fishing fleets from all around the world out there, scooping up cod for your Friday fish.
Fraser: Right, except we don’t have cod in Canada anymore because they did that.
Pamela: I’m sorry.
Fraser: Yeah, so they destroyed the –
Pamela: We need to do a better job.
Fraser: –right. So, so like on the one hand, space is big.
Fraser: And, humanity is small.
Fraser: And, we could never, with our current demands, be able to really accumulate or use much of the capability of the solar system. But –
Pamela: But I’m sure they said the same thing when there were herds of a million buffalo all over North America. And, all those various millions became a few hundred.
Fraser: Yeah, and we grow, the energy growth and material growth of planet Earth just goes at an exponential rate. You could literally predict based on historical growth for the last 10,000 years when we will have completely consumed the entire solar system to build our Dyson Swarm. So, my preference would be that we sort it out now and sort it out right as opposed to –
Pamela: And, sort it out multilaterally.
Fraser: Yeah. It’s, yeah, exactly, exactly. As opposed to, because right now, what this is is this is a race. This is us and them. This is, Canada’s gonna bring the arms, we’re gonna be racing to the Moon, against Russia and China.
Fraser: And, that is, that can’t turn out well for anybody.
Fraser: Or for everybody, it’ll turn out well for some people. But I also think that, I think people overestimate how bad and how difficult it is to try to acquire resources in space, and so people think oh no, now we’re going to strip mine the Moon, like –
Pamela: I’m not worried about the Moon being strip mined so much as, I don’t know if you saw the news earlier this week, it’s been long known that China has been claiming parts of the ocean by building atolls that have, like, a couple buildings on them and saying that’s Chinese land.
Pamela: So, they’re essentially creating land and claiming ocean.
Pamela: Well, there’s some new satellite imagery of, essentially, artificially created villages being put up in argued over border lands, so that China can start claiming parts of the mountains for China.
Pamela: And, so what we’re seeing is with this ability to register land in a safety zone, all you need is a fleet of robots and suddenly you’ve claimed vast areas of the Moon and you might only grab a scoop of regolith from each crater.
Fraser: Sure, but possession is 9/10 of the law.
Fraser: So, I think that saying that you have this space doesn’t mean that you’re actually using it and that anybody can see that actually you’ve just got one sad robot just flopping around on the regolith and it’s not actually – you’re not actually doing anything with it. So, I think it’s where the rubber, it’s where the aluminum hits the regolith is where we’re going to find out how badly or how much we actually want to use those resources in space, and my instinct today is for probably 100 years it’s still gonna be better to bring this stuff from Earth. Or use the stuff on Earth, like if you want gold, pull it from the oceans, don’t try to bring an asteroid home.
Fraser: It’s that everything is so expensive to do anything in space, at all, but there will come a day when it’s not, that the technology’s caught up, that our energy needs have increased, that our material use has reached that point, and so we really want to settle it. And, it sounds like the Artemis Accords kinda fall short of the dream of a solar system that we can all agree on.
Fraser: Like have we not – and that we haven’t learned our mistakes for centuries.
Pamela: Go watch Expanse people, go watch Expanse.
Fraser: Yeah, totally watch the Expanse, which is coming out soon.
Fraser: Anyway, all right, thank you Pamela, do you have some names for us this week?
Pamela: I do. So, as always, we are here thanks for the generous contributions of people like you. We know it’s a hard year for many of you, and we’ve seen the dips in people lowering their patronage or just cancelling it, and we get it and I wish we could help all of you. But to those of you who are still doing okay, for those of you who are working in industries that are thriving in this year that shall not be named, if you have the ability to help, we’d love it. If you’d take a moment and join out patreoncommunity, at patreon.com/astronomycast and we will send you all sorts of awesome supporting materials to go with our shows, give you early access and more.
And, for some of you, we’ll even read your names out at the end of the episode like I’m about to do right now. As I thank Jordan Young, Burry Gowen, Birko Roland, Andrew Poelstra, Brian Cagle, David Truog, Vankatesh Chary, TheGiantNothing, Dan Litman, Laura Kittleson, Robert Palsma, Joe Hollstein, Les Howard, Paul Jarman, Jos Cunningham, William, Adam Annis-Brown, and so many others. We will be bringing you new names every week. Thank you.
Fraser: Thanks, everybody. And, thank you Pamela, we’ll see you next week.
Pamela: Bye-bye everyone.
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