Lunar gold rush could lead to conflict on Earth

(ORDO NEWS) — Everyone wants the same thing from the moon. Not in the sense that they have common goals, but in the fact that all players are targeting the same strategic targets – both government agencies and the private sector. This is because if you want to do science or make money, you need things like water and light.

Many countries and private companies have ambitious plans for exploration or production on the Moon. This will not happen someday, but soon – even in this decade. This will create tensions on the ground unless a way is found to remedy the situation soon.

So far, much of the debate around Moon exploration and mining has focused on tensions in space between government agencies and the private sector. But an urgent problem arises from limited strategic resources.

Critical sites for science are also important for building infrastructure by government agencies or commercial users. Such places include “peaks of eternal light” (where sunlight is almost always present, and therefore access to energy) and permanently shaded craters in polar regions where water ice is present. Each is rare, and the combination of the two – ice at the bottom of the crater and a narrow peak of eternal light at the rim of the crater – is a valuable target for different players. But they are found only in the polar regions, and not in the equatorial areas outlined by the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s.

The recent successful landing of Chang’e 5 was aimed at a relatively smooth landing site on the near side of the Moon, but it is part of a larger phased program that should take China’s space agency towards the Moon’s south pole by 2024.

India tried a more direct polar route, with its failed Chandrayaan-2 lander crashed in the same region in 2019. Roskosmos, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, also targeted the South Polar region for a landing in late 2021 and in 2023, at Boguslavsky crater, as a test mission. Roscosmos will then target the Aitken Basin in the same region in 2022 to search for water in permanently shaded areas. A number of private companies also have ambitious plans to extract resources on the moon.

Strategic resources that are absent in the polar regions are concentrated rather than evenly distributed. Thorium and uranium, which can be used as radioactive fuel, are found together in 34 regions less than 80 km wide. Iron from asteroid impacts can be found in wider areas, from 30 to 300 kilometers across, but there are only about 20 such areas.

And then there is the plan for lunar resources, mined in dozens of sci-fi films: helium-3 for nuclear fusion. Scattered by the Sun into powdery crushed rock on the surface of the Moon, it is present in wide swaths of the Moon, but the highest concentrations are found in only 8 regions, all relatively small (less than 50 km across).

This data will be of interest both to those who are trying to create infrastructure on the Moon, and then target Mars, and for commercial exploitation (mining) or science – for example, to create telescopic groups on the far side of the Moon, away from the growing noise of human communication …

How, then, to deal with the problem? The Outer Space Treaty (1967) states that “the exploration and use of outer space should be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and should be the property of all mankind.” States cannot claim ownership of parts of the moon, but they can still use them. Where this will lead in disputes and mining by private companies is unclear.

Proposed successors to therapy, such as the 1979 Moon Agreement, are seen as overly restrictive, requiring a formal system of laws and an ambitious international regulatory regime. The agreement did not find support among key players, including the United States, Russia and China. Later steps, such as the Artemis Accords – a set of guidelines for the Artemis crewed lunar exploration program – are perceived to be heavily tied to the US program.

At its worst, this lack of framework can lead to increased tensions on Earth. But it can also lead to unnecessary duplication of infrastructure where everyone builds their own stuff. This will increase costs for individual organizations, which will have reasons to try to recoup them in ways that could jeopardize the capabilities of science and the legacy that we will leave to future generations.

Our best initial response may be humble, based on the underrated places on Earth. Small basins of terrestrial resources such as lakes bordering several villages or fish stocks are often managed using approaches developed locally by key players.

This suggests that the first step towards managing lunar resources will be to reach agreement among users. This should focus on the nature of the resources in question, how their benefits should be allocated, and, most importantly, on the worst-case scenarios they seek to avoid. For example, actors will need to decide whether the peaks of eternal light should be managed as a piece of high-value real estate or as a volume of generated energy to be shared. It may be worth making a decision on an individual basis.

Another challenge will be to ensure compliance with the emerging governance mechanisms. To this end, lunar users would be well advised to build shared facilities, such as landing and supply facilities, so that they function as an incentive that could deter misbehaving actors. Such partial solutions will be difficult to add after a country or company has made irreversible investments in mission projects. One thing is clear: the time has come to develop these approaches.

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