With much of the world currently dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, US President Donald Trump is also looking at the moon.
Trump signed an executive order called “Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources,” which reaffirms that Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space.
“This executive order establishes U.S. policy toward the recovery and use of space resources, such as water and certain minerals, in order to encourage the commercial development of space,” Scott Pace, executive secretary of the U.S. National Space Council, said in a statement.
The order had been in the works for about a year and reflects the US’ long-held pro-business approach when dealing with space resources. In 1979, the country refused to sign the Moon Treaty that would stipulate non-scientific use of space resources to be governed by an international regulatory framework.
At the same time, in 2015, Congress passed a law that allowed U.S. companies and citizens to freely use lunar and asteroid resources. With Trump’s new executive order, the U.S. now possesses a clearer vision for future off-Earth mining, without the requirement for further international treaties or agreements.
The order comes during a push for lunar exploration. Last year NASA unveiled the Artemis program’s mission to send astronauts to the moon by 2024. A part of the operation would entail establishing a sustainable lunar outpost by 2028, fueled by tapping into lunar resources like water ice that is thought to be plentiful on craters.
Nevertheless, the moon is not the final destination for NASA’s ambitions. Mars is also in line and to reach that goal the Artemis program will help NASA and its partners learn how to support astronauts in deep space with limited resources for long periods of time. NASA, though, will have strong competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
The question of which laws apply (including property laws and border agreements) once you leave the surface of the Earth is a complex one; even if it weren’t, many laws and rules on the topic were written or conceived of during a very different space age and various forms of Cold War.
As it stands, there is very little in the way of official legal status for materials harvested on the Moon. Which authorities on Earth are going to arbitrate disagreements? How will we prevent the lunar surface from being disfigured by a commercial mining operation?
To that end, the U.S. will “seek to negotiate joint statements and bilateral and multilateral arrangements with foreign states regarding safe and sustainable operations for the public and private recovery and use of space resources,” the executive order reads. Nevertheless, in seeking international support, the U.S may draw on legal precedents and examples from other domains to promote the recovery and use of space resources.
“American industry and the industries of like-minded countries will benefit from the establishment of stable international practices,” the order reads.