China’s Chang’e-4 lunar rover is due to touchdown on the far side of the moon around New Year, 2019 at the Von Kármán crater in Aitken Basin –the craggy and complex terrain of the lunar south pole region. The planet’s new space superpower will plant its flag. Will it also claim ownership?
It’s a geopolitical question that could change the history of the 21st Century, and beyond. Could a ‘research station’ at the Peaks of Eternal Light, for example, prevent another nation or commercial space venture from creating a similar project at the location?
In July of 2016, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics senior astrophysicist, Martin Elvis, sounded the alarm of how an unfriendly power – the China for example – could seize control of an important piece of lunar real estate. They could do it legally by exploiting provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, that bars any nation — and by extension, corporation — from owning property on a celestial body, but a loophole in the pact may amount to the same thing, warns Elvis.
The real estate in question are the so-called “Peaks of Eternal Light” (image above) that lay around permanently shadowed craters at the Lunar South Pole. Unlike the Earth, which is tilted so the poles are in six months of darkness and six months of light, the moon is almost perfectly aligned with its orbit around the sun. Because of the way the moon tilts, these peaks are bathed in sunlight for most if not all of the time, which means you can have an almost continuous power supply, ideal for a photovoltaic power station.
This part of the moon would be perfect places to erect solar power stations that would support mining operations in the nearby craters, where water and other valuable resources such as helium 3 have been deposited over billions of years.
Elvis says that provisions in the treaty allow nations to exploit resources, including through establishing research stations, and bar others from disrupting such endeavors. In some cases, this could amount to de facto ownership, Elvis said. As China and Japan plan moon landings, and corporate leaders eye their own space ventures, the loophole has gained in importance.
The Outer Space Treaty, approved by the United Nations in 1967 and signed by 104 nations, designates space as a peaceful realm where activities are carried out “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries.”
Article II, reports Harvard Politics, is one of the most important parts of the treaty in the eyes of the commercial space industry. It states that outer space “is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Many have labeled the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 , which gives American companies property rights to any natural resources collected from celestial bodies, a violation of this clause.
One reason why this controversy stands unresolved is the debate over the phrase “national appropriation” in Article II. For instance, the American and Soviet governments have both brought moon rocks back to Earth, and Japan has even retrieved dust from an asteroid. “Nobody ever claimed that was … illegal for those nations to take those rock samples,” George Washington university space policy professor Henry Hertzfeld told the HPR.
While nations have been able to conduct these small-scale extractions without repercussions, difficult legal quandaries appear with the case of extracting resources from a celestial body for commercial use. “Suppose an asteroid is ten meters across, and you pick up a big rock, and the asteroid is now eight meters across,” Elvissaid in an interview with the HPR. “Is it okay to keep mining until it just doesn’t exist anymore?”
Hertzfeld pointed out that Article IX of the Treaty, which requires nations to consult one another about the possible harmful effects of their space operations beforehand, is presumably the legal mechanism to deal with such an issue. Still, he agreed that “somewhere along the way, some [policy] decisions will have to be made about that.”
Image credit: With thanks to Ron Miller, Eight Wonders of the Solar System
Top 10 Most-Viewed Headlines of 2018 (Click and View)