America’s new moonshot: Getting Europe to sign up to its space rules

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The US is pulling allies into orbit when it comes to creating new rules about who can do what on the moon – but France and Germany aren’t on board yet.

The text, known as the Artemis Agreement, sets out Washington’s preferred principles for a new era in space exploration. It aims to establish accepted standards for everything from the exploitation of natural resources on the moon, comets and asteroids to the ability of governments to Protect access to lunar bases or mining zones.

The lobbying is taking place amid a new space race with China, which is rapidly advancing its own national program and has outlined embryonic plans for a lunar base with Russia. Both countries have made it clear that they are not interested in joining the US-led effort.

While 18-sided chords Not legally binding, countries are expected to sign up if they wish to have access to NASA’s broader Artemis program, which aims to bring astronauts back to the moon this decade. Since the text was first published in October 2020, Italy, the UK, Poland and Luxembourg (a major asteroid mining supporter) have signed alongside eight other countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan and South Korea.

But while many of America’s greatest allies quickly joined, France and Germany are still not convinced.

During a visit to Paris in November, US Vice President Kamala Harris said French President Emmanuel Macron intends to sign, but Paris has not yet done so. “We are continuing our talks with the United States in constant collaboration with our European partners,” said an Élysée spokesman.

Paris – traditionally Europe’s space powerhouse with a huge domestic aerospace industry – has had strained diplomatic relations with Washington since a new Indo-Pacific partnership broke a French nuclear-submarine deal with Australia in the fall. Relationship improved in November when Harris visited Paris and the two countries Committed cooperate more in space.

But even if the agreements are not yet international law, some are wondering whether Europe should agree to America’s space ambitions.

The US text aims at that 1967 UN space treaty – the most important laws for the moon and other celestial objects. This treaty states that no country can claim sovereignty or property rights on the lunar surface and prohibits the installation of weapons of mass destruction in orbit.

The US-sponsored text changes that equation and calls on countries to agree that “the extraction of space resources is not inherently a national appropriation,” a signal for countries and businesses to start planning.

“France has so far defended a conservative interpretation of the 1967 Space Treaty, as the exploitation of space resources should be viewed as a forbidden form of national appropriation, at least with current technologies and the current state of international law,” said Jérôme Barbier, head of space at the Paris Peace Forum – an annual initiative Macron launched in 2017 and which Harris participated in that year.

The signatories of the Artemis Accords believe that space resources are fair game within the boundaries of the 1967 Treaty, a potential game changer at a time when the demand for rare earth metals, used in technical devices and in large quantities, is booming Can be found in space.

Moon distance

Space mining isn’t the only topic up for debate.

The US proposal to designate so-called security zones is interpreted by some lawyers as giving the green light to countries to claim exclusive access to certain areas, which also clashes with the general interpretation of the 1967 treaty, said Arthur Sauzay, expert on Space policy at the Paris-based think tank institute Montaigne.

“You would have expected Europe to take a different position on the agreements,” he said. “It’s pretty noticeable to see some countries sign.”

While the French government insists on working with other European countries, Germany has not yet signed the agreements either. Instead, the new government in Berlin wants to strengthen the role of the Paris-based European Space Agency (ESA).

“The question in the room is who will bring the first astronauts to the gateway” [a planned orbital lunar space station] and maybe to the moon, “said a senior space diplomat from a European country that has not signed up.” At the moment, every country is trying to do this itself. “

The European Commission, which set up its own space and defense division in 2019, says ESA, a non-EU institution of which the UK is still a member, is conducting exploration projects. Agency director general Josef Aschbacher said ESA could be a “coordinating body” for new space rules, but added that countries are free to hold bilateral talks.

There are also nascent efforts to legislate at EU level. Niklas Nienaß, a green space deputy who was involved in the negotiations on the new German coalition agreement, wants to push for a “space law” in the European Parliament that also provides standards for resource exploitation.

“The problem is that Luxembourg, Italy and Poland have joined the Artemis Agreement and it is therefore difficult to imagine a European solution when some EU and ESA member states are already bound,” said French space expert Barbier.

Free to start

The broader Artemis space program – launched by the Trump administration in 2017 and named after a Greek goddess – aims to bring the US space program back to its 1960s zenith by establishing a permanent presence on the moon.

At the beginning of next year, NASA is planning an unmanned test flight with the Orion space probe, for which European contractors have built the service module. A manned test flight around the moon is planned for 2024 and the first mission to land on the lunar surface will be planned for the second half of the decade.

According to NASA spokeswoman Kathryn Hambleton, a decision as to which astronauts will land on the moon will only be made after the first test flight. Four are expected to make the cut, and NASA has already announced it will fly the first Woman and Person of Color to the moon, but has not confirmed whether a non-American will be admitted.

“The Europeans are pretty deep in the Artemis program because they are building the service module,” Sauzay said. “If it’s all about money, it would make sense that the first non-American was a European.”

An exchange contract for the development of the Orion service module means that one day Europe will already have three tickets for the trip to the orbital space station Gateway. Any future agreement to send a European astronaut to the lunar surface would be subject to a separate intergovernmental agreement, one diplomat said, with the nationality of the person selected likely depending on which country is providing critical technology for the mission, such as a lunar lander.

Even so, getting used to the US won’t hurt your chances of a seat on the prestigious first lunar mission, and there are some strong European candidates out there.

French Thomas Pesquet recently returned from his second trip to the International Space Station, and Italian Samantha Cristoforetti will take command of the outpost next year. The British Tim Peake and the German Alexander Gerst are also experienced astronauts.

And not only Europe wants to hitchhike to the moon. Japan’s space agency JAXA launched on November 19 Recruit astronauts Promising that future missions could include a “trip to the moon base”.

The question that preoccupies some capitals is whether signing the agreements will deprive Europe of bargaining power in regulating space.

“In order to achieve this goal of being the first European on the gateway or the first European on the moon, national interests there become so great that [capitals] may not be careful enough to see all the consequences, ”said the senior space diplomat.

Rym Momtaz contributed to the coverage.

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