The international community has struggled for decades to formalize rules regarding the collection and use of resources in space and on the Moon. While the U.S. and all spacefaring countries declined to endorse the most famous attempt, the 1979 “Moon Treaty,” the new Moon race has spurred the White House to announce it is open to a new international agreement on the topic.
In an executive order issued today, the administration signaled that it will be the policy going forward to “encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space.”
The order doesn’t impose anything but remains a mere statement of policy, so this is just an initial step. But it’s an indication that the U.S. wishes to move forward with a new framework regarding the use of resources in space.
The question of what 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. Considering the present boom in the space business and the impending colonization of near-Earth bodies like the Moon and potentially asteroids, new rules are clearly necessary.
As it stands, there is very little in the way of official legal status for materials harvested on the Moon, brought there to stay, shared with other countries, and so on. What authorities on Earth are going to arbitrate disagreements? How will we prevent the lunar surface from being disfigured by a commercial mining operation blowing chunks of regolith into orbit?
Like the lack of rules surrounding filling the sky with communications satellites, and the resulting global outcry, it’s clear something needs to be done. But even the scope of the rules is in question. Should things like property rights on the Moon be considered? If so, considering the complexity of that question, would the rules be finished in time to avert the conflicts they’re intended to? But if not, why not? And when will they be considered?
As you can see, this is a pretty big can of worms the U.S. is planning on opening, but it has to be done sooner or later.
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.
No doubt there are high-level talks already in progress, or else the administration would likely not find it expedient to publicly declare support for a new approach to space regulation. Doubtless every other country planning commercial use of space is ready to take part — but that doesn’t mean negotiations will be simple or easy.