Shade of things to come: Neil Armstrong ventured across the moon's surface on 20 July 1969, marking the start of efforts to claim our near neighbour. Photograph: NASA/New York Times/Redux.
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Who owns the moon? We're just going to have to get up there and find out

A legal loophole has made it impossible to say who can claim the moon - but with a wealth of minerals and "rare earth" elements, plus huge potential for space exploration, we'll have to get up there and fight it out.

“I know I may not make it through this lunar night.” The China Academy of Space Technology laid the pathos on thick when it gave its lunar robot Jade Rabbit a farewell speech at the end of last month. The rover had become mired in moon dust and was unable to enter hibernation. Facing 14 days without sunlight, the solar-powered robot, launched on 2 December, was unlikely to survive. “Good night, Planet Earth,” it said. “Good night, humanity.”

It looked like the end of a venture that could have accelerated the process of finding out who – if anyone – owns the moon. The ultimate goal for Jade Rabbit was to bore a hole in the moon and see what moon rock is made of. That’s because the Chinese think the moon’s minerals might be worth extracting. “They are looking at feasibility for mining the moon, and they are likely to do it if there’s a strong business case,” says Richard Holdaway, director of the space division at the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which collaborates closely with China’s space programme.

There would be nothing illegal about such an operation because international laws covering the moon are “way, way behind”, as Holdaway puts it. In theory, anyone who could manage it (and afford it) could go to the moon tomorrow, dig out a huge chunk of lunar rock, bring it back to earth and sell it off to the highest bidder. The Chinese could take the moon apart and sell it bit by bit without breaking international law. The question we have to ask ourselves is simple: do we see a need to prevent that happening?

The moon’s bounty is not fanciful science fiction. “There is stuff on the moon to mine – no doubt about it,” Holdaway says. We know that minerals that are hard to find on earth, such as the “rare earth” elements and the metals titanium and uranium, are abundant up there. But the main prize is the lighter isotope of helium, known as helium-3. This gas is the critical fuel for nuclear fusion reactors, which promise an energy yield many times higher than the present generation of fission-powered reactors. Helium-3 costs roughly $10m a kilo. Though we don’t yet have commercial fusion reactors, these might not be far off. When they arrive, the demand for helium-3 will outstrip supply, and the easiest place to get more will be from moon rock. It couldn’t be easier: heat the rock and the gas comes out.

It’s not just the Chinese who have ambitions in this direction. Some private companies also have their eye on lunar rock as a source of riches. Most are based in the US, and they are actively working on lunar landers that will eventually be able to perform mineral extraction.

As yet, it is very hard to know whether the business case will stand up. It’s not a small endeavour to set up a factory on the moon. It is horrendously expensive to leave Planet Earth. Space on a shuttle is sold, like poultry, by weight. The cost of escaping the earth is roughly $25,000 per kilo. Anyone paying that kind of money upfront needs strong guarantees that the investment is worthwhile. That is why the space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow has asked the US government to nail down issues raised by who can mine the moon. “The time has come to get serious about lunar property rights,” he told a press briefing last November.

Bigelow made his money in hotels and property and has decided to pursue accommodation in space as his next venture. He already has a contract to supply astronaut habitats to Nasa; he has also said he wants to build habitats on the moon and, eventually, Mars. That plan, he argues, will be compromised unless issues of lunar ownership are clarified.

Two treaties cover the beyond-earth behaviour of nations and private companies. The oldest is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. It says that “the exploration and use of outer space … shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries … and shall be the province of all mankind”.

The agreement wasn’t drawn up to deal with questions of property rights, however. “It strictly prohibits claims by sovereign nations, but it does not expressly prohibit private entities from claiming private property rights,” says Michael J Listner, a New Hampshire-based lawyer specialising in space policy. “Depending on who you talk to, that omission creates a loophole for private ownership rights.”

One of the purposes of the treaty was to allow private companies to engage in activities in space, creating the opportunity for establishing commercial satellite networks, for instance. Back when the pact was developed, the Soviet Union argued that nation states were the only proper actors in space; the US wanted to give private companies a chance to exploit the new frontier. So, a compromise was reached: Article VI says that non-governmental organisations have to be supervised by their nation states.

The treaty says nothing about those non-governmental actors claiming property rights, however. “It doesn’t prohibit them, it doesn’t allow them. It’s completely silent,” says Joanne Gabrynowicz, a professor emerita of space law at the University of Mississippi who acts as an official observer to the UN effort to oversee the legal framework governing use of space.

This gaping hole in the legislation is where the 1984 Moon Agreement comes in. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs hosts the agreement, which states that the moon’s environment should not be disrupted, that it should be used only for peaceful purposes, “that the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind” and that “an international regime” should be established “to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the moon when such exploitation is about to become feasible”.

It sounds cut and dried: no one can own bits of the moon without further negotiations. The problem is that the seven nations which have ratified the Moon Agreement have no investment in it – they are not space-faring. “It’s considered pointless because the US, China and Russia didn’t even become a party to it,” Listner says. “If any of the three had done that, it might have been more meaningful.” Holdaway agrees: “It’s not legally binding. China could send armies of robots and humans and effectively stick a flag in the ground and say: ‘It’s ours.’ ”

In truth, there is no cause for alarm. The technology required for commercial exploitation is still decades away. The main question for now is whether it will ever be worth anyone’s while to develop the landers and infrastructure necessary to kick-start lunar-based industry.

Google has given some an incentive to develop our lunar capabilities. It is offering $20m to anyone who is the first to land on the moon’s surface, travel 500 metres and then send a couple of high-definition broadcasts back to earth.

Eighteen teams are aiming at this “Lunar XPrize”, which expires at the end of next year. One of the front-runners is Moon Express, a company based in Silicon Valley, California. In December, it unveiled its design for a lunar lander named MX-1. MX-1 is “the size of a large coffee table” and will get into space in the same way most satellites are deployed: aboard a conventional rocket that releases the lander once it has reached roughly 2,000 kilometres in altitude. Fuelled by hydrogen peroxide, the MX-1 will then wend its way to the moon to carry out whatever tasks are required.

Bob Richards, the founder and chief executive of Moon Express, calls the lander the “iPhone of space”, because it can perform a variety of roles on the lunar surface. Moon Express intends to accomplish its first lunar sample return mission by 2020. “We expect that material to be very valuable, with a global market,” Richards says.

Though it sounds impressive, MX-1 is so far nothing more than a design. Things get a lot harder once they need to become reality, Listner points out. “It’s fun to talk about it on a blog. It’s another thing to get down to doing it,” he says. “This isn’t like opening up the Wild West: space is hard and dangerous. You’ve got to bring your air, your water, your food – and we need to develop an understanding of how the lunar environment affects the human physiology.” It’s likely that the labour of resource extraction will involve human beings as well as robots, and we don’t know what it will be like to do a long stint on the moon. “We have some experience with the Apollo missions, but, between all those missions, humans have spent less than 100 hours performing activities on the surface,” Listner says.

Clearly there’s a long way to go – and it is entirely possible that nothing will be done about the legal issues until the first claims are staked. That’s what is so useful about China’s Jade Rabbit project: it makes it clear claims will be staked soon. Once a claim is laid, something will have to give, Gabrynowicz reckons. “When it becomes apparent that there are going to be credible attempts at resource extraction, there will have to be some diplomatic discussions,” she says.

According to Richard Bilder, a space law specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the high probability of those discussions hitting an impasse makes it worth pushing nations to start the process of setting up a legal regime right away. “This is likely to be easier to accomplish now, while prospects for lunar extraction are still only speculative, than after one or several countries succeed in establishing a lunar base and have clear special stakes and interests,” he says.

Yet Bilder remains pessimistic about the likelihood of this happening. The United States, he notes, seems uninterested, and there is little incentive for China and India to attempt to resolve the legal problems now – they will just want to get on with establishing lunar bases and launching whatever activities they deem worth pursuing.

Others are more upbeat. Some concerns about Chinese ambition derive from a cold war perspective that is no longer relevant, Gabrynowicz argues. The truth is, nations are now far more likely to become partners in seeking to exploit lunar resources. Holdaway points out that the UK and China are already working together in space, and says there is little reason to think both countries won’t be open to partnerships concerning the moon.

And even if it’s not nations but private companies, there could still be international collaboration, Listner reckons. “Some companies might form conglomerates to combine their resources to do it,” he says. We shouldn’t necessarily be concerned about that: private enterprises are still accountable to national governments and so will be subject to regulation – especially as governments are likely to be among their main customers, Gabrynowicz notes.

Last month, Nasa raised the game by launching a competitor to the Lunar XPrize. Under the Catalyst scheme, Nasa will share its experience and resources with private firms; in return it will get access to the companies’ designs for lunar landers. There’s a twist: US security regulations will make it much easier for US firms to co-operate with Nasa than businesses based abroad. So if Catalyst works as a stimulus to moon mining, the spoils will most likely belong to America.

Whether it’s helium-3 fuel, mineral resources or plain water – what Richards calls “the oil of the solar system”, because it is vital for life support and rocket fuel – lunar resources will almost certainly be used first to support further space exploration. It makes much more sense to launch a manned mission to Mars from the moon than from earth: that way overcomes the difficulties of escaping our planet’s gravity. Operators of fusion-powered Mars probes, crewed by astronauts from a lunar base, are the most likely customers of the first lunar industries. It remains to be seen whether we will be happy with any of that, Holdaway says. “Will this be acceptable to the rest of world? I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that.”

Michael Brooks is the New Statesman’s science columnist

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times