Trump order lays space mining groundwork
Plans formation of international pacts for celestial resources Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – April 15, 2020
Last updated 9/14/2020 at 9:51am
Space exploration and colonization will not always be able to rely on the expense of rocketing goods beyond the gravitational pull of Earth. Instead, the mining of ice and other minerals for fuel, water and building materials will need to be carried out by aspiring extraterrestrial pioneers such as SpaceX.
To ensure space explorers are able to extract the resources they need to travel to, live and work on the Moon, Mars and beyond, President Donald Trump has signed an executive order that aims to clarify the rules for mining celestial bodies in our Solar System.
"Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law," according to the executive order signed by Trump on April 6.
There has, however, been a long-running international debate about how space mining would be governed.
In 1979, the United Nations advanced a treaty that would place the jurisdiction of celestial bodies in our Solar System into the hands of participant countries, which would largely put space mining activities under UN laws.
This treaty, commonly known as the "Moon Agreement" lays out some general rules:
• Bans any military use of celestial bodies, except for scientific research or other peaceful purposes.
• Provides a framework of laws to establish an international cooperation on the responsible exploitation of natural resources of the Moon.
• Bans altering the environmental balance of celestial bodies (terraforming) and requires that states take measures to prevent accidental contamination of the environments of celestial bodies, including Earth.
• Requires the orderly and safe use of the natural lunar resources with an equitable sharing by all Earth countries in the benefits derived from those resources.
• The placement of personnel or equipment on or below the surface shall not create a right of ownership.
• There shall be freedom of scientific research and exploration and use on the Moon by any party without discrimination of any kind.
• Any areas or regions reported to have a special scientific interest, shall be designated as international scientific preserves.
• Shall promptly inform the United Nations and the public of any phenomena which could endanger human life or health, as well as of any indication of extraterrestrial life.
• State parties shall ensure that non-governmental entities under their jurisdiction shall engage in activities on the Moon only under the authority and continuing supervision of the appropriate state party.
• All parties shall inform the United Nations as well as the public, of their activities concerned with the exploration and use of the Moon.
While 18, mostly Earth-bound, countries signed onto the Moon Agreement, none of the spacefaring nations have signed on. These non-signing countries include the U.S., most European Union countries, Japan, China and Russia. This weak participation has called into question the relevancy of the treaty.
"The United States is not a party to the Moon Agreement," Trump inked in the executive order. "Further, the United States does not consider the Moon Agreement to be an effective or necessary instrument to guide nation states regarding the promotion of commercial participation in the long-term exploration, scientific discovery, and use of the Moon, Mars, or other celestial bodies."
While the U.S. now considers space "a legally and physically unique domain of human activity," it does not consider the celestial bodies a "global commons" subject to a U.N. treaty primarily supported by a handful of countries.
Trump, however, does see the need for international cooperation on space endeavors such as mining and is tasking the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to negotiate agreements with other countries on "safe and sustainable operations for the public and private recovery and use of space resources."
These negotiations come at a time when global aspirations for space are moving beyond sending teams of astronaut-scientists to the International Space Station.
In fact, SpaceX hopes to launch the first cargo to support a human colony on Mars in 2022 and begin sending the first Earthlings there in 2024.
At the same time, state run programs such as China's Chang'e lunar missions are exploring the potential of mining the Moon for critical metals such as titanium, as well as helium-3, a stable isotope of helium considered an ideal fuel for future nuclear fusion power plants.
NASA is also gearing up for the Artemis program, which aims to "land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before." This is part of a larger objective to establish sustainable Moon exploration in partnership with private companies and other countries.
"Then, we will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars," NASA penned on its Artemis program page.
The Trump administration hopes the space mining executive order adds some assurance to extraterrestrial visionaries such as SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk that the minerals are available to build man's first off-Earth homes.
"You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that's what being a spacefaring civilization is all about," said Musk. "It's about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can't think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars."
SpaceX will be launching a NASA payload to 16 Psyche, an asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter that is made up of an estimated $700 quintillion worth of nickel, iron and other metals. Find out more about this mission at SpaceX to launch NASA mission to Psyche in the March 4 edition of Metal Tech News.