The race to colonize the Moon could create conflict on Earth, new research suggests

When it comes to the Moon, everyone wants the same things. Not in the sense of having shared goals, but in the sense that all players are heading to the same strategic locations: state agencies and the private sector alike. This is because, whether you want to do science or earn money, you will need things like water and electricity.

Many countries and private companies have ambitious plans to explore or exploit the Moon. This will not be sometime remote, but soon, even in this decade. As we pointed out in our recent article, published in the Transactions of the Royal SocietyThis will create tension on the ground unless we find ways to handle the situation imminently.

Until now, much of the debate surrounding the exploration and extraction of the Moon has centered on the tensions in space between state agencies and the private sector. But in our view, the urgent challenge arises from limited strategic resources.

The only six sites on the far side of the Moon suitable for telescope arrays around 200 km in diameter. Photo credit: NASA

Strategic sites

Sites important to science are also important for infrastructure construction by state agencies or commercial users. Such sites include “peaks of eternal light” (where there is almost constant sunlight and therefore access to energy) and continuously shaded craters in the polar regions, where there is water ice. Each is rare, and the combination of the two, ice on the crater floor and a narrow spike of eternal light on the crater rim, is a prized target for different players. But they occur only in the polar regions, rather than the equatorial sites targeted by the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s.

China’s recent successful landing of Chang’e 5 aimed at a relatively soft landing site on the lunar near side, but is part of a larger gradual program that will take China’s space agency to the lunar south pole to 2024.

India tried a more direct polar route, and its failed Chandrayaan-2 lander crashed in the same region in 2019. Russian Roscosmos, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is also targeting the south pole region for late landing. in 2021 and, in 2023, in the Boguslavsky crater, as a test mission.

Roscosmos will then target the Aitken basin in the same region in 2022 to seek water in permanently shaded areas. Several private companies also have ambitious plans to extract resources from the Moon.

Strategic resources not found in the polar regions tend to be concentrated rather than evenly distributed. Thorium and uranium, which could be used as radioactive fuel, are found together in 34 regions that are areas less than 80 km wide. Iron resulting from asteroid impacts can be found in larger territories, ranging from 30 to 300 km wide, but there are only about 20 of those areas.

And then there’s the poster boy for lunar resources, drawn in dozens of sci-fi movies: Helium-3, for nuclear fusion. Seeded by the Sun in the crushed powdery rock of the lunar surface, it is present in wide areas along the Moon, but the highest concentrations are found in only about eight regions, all relatively small (less than 50 km in diameter) .

These materials will be of interest both to those who try to establish an infrastructure on the Moon and later go to Mars, as well as to commercial exploitation (mining) or science, for example, creating telescopic arrays on the far lunar side, far of the increasing noise of human communications.

So how do we tackle the problem? The Outer Space Treaty (1967) states that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries and shall be the competence of all humanity”. States cannot claim parts of the Moon as property, but they can still use them. It is not clear where this leaves disputes and extraction by private companies.

Proposed successors to the treatment, such as the Moon Agreement (1979), are considered too restrictive and require a formal framework of laws and an ambitious international regulatory regime. The deal has failed to win the support of key players, including the United States, Russia and China. More recent steps, such as the Artemis Accords, a set of guidelines surrounding the Artemis Program for manned exploration of the Moon, are perceived as strongly linked to the US program.

Artist’s impression of a moon base. Photo credit: ESA / Foster + Partners, CC BY-SA

In the worst case, this lack of frame could lead to increased stresses on Earth. But it could also create unnecessary duplication of infrastructure as everyone builds their own stuff. That would drive up costs for individual organizations, who would then have reason to try to recoup in ways that could compromise the opportunities for science and the legacy we leave for future generations.

Paths to follow

Our best initial response may be modest, following the example of overlooked sites on Earth. Small reserves of terrestrial resources, such as lakes bordered by various villages, or fish stocks, are often managed using approaches developed locally by the key stakeholders involved.

These suggest that a first step towards the governance of lunar resources will be to create an agreement among users. This should focus on the nature of the resources at stake, how their benefits should be distributed and, fundamentally, the worst-case scenarios they seek to avoid. For example, actors will likely need to decide whether peaks of eternal light should be managed as a patch of high-value real estate or as a volume of energy production to share. It may also be worth deciding on a case-by-case basis.

Another challenge will be to promote compliance with the governance arrangements that are designed. To that end, lunar users would do well to build shared facilities, such as landing and supply facilities, to function like carrots that can withhold misbehaving actors. These partial solutions will be difficult to add after a country or company has made irreversible investments in mission design. Clearly, now is the time to design these approaches.

Tony Milligan is a Senior Ethics Researcher for the Cosmological Visionaries project at King’s College London.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.