“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