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Lunar mining falls into gray area of international law, but talks are underway to avoid conflict

This artwork was done for NASA by Pat Rawlings, of Eagle Visuals.

The Moon bears substantial natural resources which could be exploited in the future. Potential lunar resources may encompass processable materials such as volatiles and minerals, along with geologic structures such as lava tubes that together, might enable lunar habitation. The use of resources on the Moon may provide a means of reducing the cost and risk of lunar exploration and beyond.

Insights about lunar resources gained from orbit and sample-return missions have greatly enhanced the understanding of the potential for in situ resource utilization (ISRU) at the Moon, but that knowledge is not yet sufficient to fully justify the commitment of large financial resources to implement an ISRU-based campaign. The determination of resource availability will drive the selection of sites for human settlement.

It’s been 50 years since humans last visited the Moon, and even robotic missions have been few and far between. But the Earth’s only natural satellite is about to get crowded.

At least six countries and a flurry of private companies have publicly announced more than 250 missions to the Moon to occur within the next decade. Many of these missions include plans for permanent lunar bases and are motivated in large part by ambitions to assess and begin utilizing the Moon’s natural resources. In the short term, resources would be used to support lunar missions, but in the long term, the Moon and its resources will be a critical gateway for missions to the broader riches of the solar system.

But these lofty ambitions collide with a looming legal question. On Earth, possession and ownership of natural resources are based on territorial sovereignty. Conversely, Article II of the Outer Space Treaty – the 60-year-old agreement that guides human activity in space – forbids nations from claiming territory in space. This limitation includes the Moon, planets and asteroids. So how will space resources be managed?

The growing interest in extractable resources on the Moon may have a problem: there ain’t enough to go around.

Toss in for good measure the lack of international policies or agreements to decide “who gets what from where.”

A team of researchers believe tensions, overcrowding, and quick exhaustion of resources to be one possible future for lunar mining projects.

These views are fleshed out in a paper recently published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.

Room for conflict

“A lot of people think of space as a place of peace and harmony between nations. The problem is there’s no law to regulate who gets to use the resources, and there are a significant number of space agencies and others in the private sector that aim to land on the Moon within the next five years,” said Martin Elvis, astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and the lead author on the paper, “Concentrated lunar resources: imminent implications for governance and justice.”

The South Pole-Aitken Basin on the lunar farside.

Credit: NASA/GSFC/University of Arizona

“We looked at all the maps of the Moon we could find and found that not very many places had resources of interest, and those that did were very small. That creates a lot of room for conflict over certain resources,” Elvis adds in a Center for Astrophysics press statement.

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