A new executive order allows for U.S. mining on the moon.
Future moon inhabitants will likely need to use materials around them to build sustainable shelter.
The moon is governed by various treaties over time, but these have rarely been tested.
President Donald Trump has signed an executive order allowing for the mining of resources from the moon and asteroids, continuing a decades-long U.S. interest in doing so. With the imminent return of U.S. astronauts to the moon scheduled for 2024, this issue is more real than it has been for several decades.
But the U.S. isn’t alone. The European Space Agency (ESA) also wants to mine the moon, and the world’s spacefaring nations have all notably stayed out of a 1979 treaty that says nations will refrain from mining in space. The 1967 (deep breath) Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies outlines the way the world agrees to behave in space. We must be peaceful, consider ourselves ambassadors for Earth, and resist colonizing or claiming areas of space.
The U.S. is one of 109 fully completed signatories to this treaty—in fact, we helped initiate it and signed it right away. But no one has made enough progress into space to really test the component parts of this important treaty, and the political reality of space could end up being more like Antarctica. A dozen countries had made territorial claims or research ventures in Antarctica by the time the Antarctic Treaty System was introduced in 1959. Many nations signed and continue to honor this treaty, but others insist they could still do whatever they wanted. They just haven’t wanted to.
What’s on the moon that warrants mining? Well, the ESA plan describes an interest in regolith, which is lunar soil rich in specific elements. But the U.S.’s interest seems more closely linked with building sustainable settlements on the moon, which NASA’s Artemis program plans to do beginning as early as the late 2020s. For a settlement, the ability to explore for water or mine moon rock to use for building could make the difference between feasibility or impossibility.
The Artemis program has positioned itself as a waystation on an eventual U.S. journey to Mars. It’s not clear today how these long-term plans will work out or not, and it’s even less clear what role private companies like SpaceX will play. Will a potential U.S. moon base receive paying private citizens on a Starship expedition to settle on Mars?
Scientists and researchers are investing a lot of time and resources in ways astronauts will be able to gather what’s around them on the moon or on Mars in order to make building materials, life-sustaining shelter, and even renewable fuel for people staying on these celestial bodies.
Once the idea of moon traffic becomes more commonplace and less abstract, world powers will have to grapple with space policy again, because any group will eventually need to make rules together and decide what to do with people who violate the rules. Indeed, when it comes to the law of space, this is just the beginning.
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