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Moon Rush Could Spark Conflict, Claims Study

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The coming near-term Moon rush may end up creating new political and economic tensions, or even conflicts, as both commercial and national space agency players compete for a limited number of easily accessible lunar resources. Or so says a new study by an international team of researchers led by the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

In their paper just published in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A., the authors argue that many of the useful and valuable resources on the Moon are concentrated into a modest number (tens) of quite small regions (in the order of a few kilometers).

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“Once a resource is sufficiently valuable and scarce, disputes are inevitable.” Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the paper’s lead author, told me. “Whether they become conflicts in the sense of being violent is up to how we choose to govern the Moon.”

The authors note that conflicts over access to five prime lunar resources are potential flashpoints:

—- Water. Both for life support. And to split into its constituent components of hydrogen and oxygen which can then be liquefied and used as rocket fuel.

—- Peaks of Eternal Light. These Peaks are valuable for both the collection of almost continuous solar power, say the authors. And as locations where the approximately 300-degrees-Celsius day-to-night temperature swings of the typical equatorial lunar surface location are mostly avoided, they note.

—- Iron. Lunar Iron-rich regions derived from asteroid impacts are some 30–300km across and limited to 20 or so sites, write the authors. However, asteroid iron also has the advantage that it may also be rich in precious metals, including platinum and palladium, they note. And Iron becomes important when building heavy industrial equipment

—- Cold Traps. So-called Cold Traps in the permanently dark craters at the poles are thought to contain volatile materials from the early solar system, including water, write the authors. The floors of such craters have been in almost total darkness for up to 3.5 billion years, they note, illuminated only by starlight and reflections off the nearby rims. Extremely cold (below −180 Celsius), they may be uniquely well-suited sites for far-infrared telescopes, or as a spot to build ultra-cold atom facilities on a far larger scale than on Earth or in laboratories in free space, the authors write.

—- And Helium-3. Such lunar sources of Helium-3 will be needed to power fusion nuclear reactors back here on Earth. But such fusion reactors remain a technology whose fruition is still decades in the future.

Who might be at loggerheads within the next few years about lunar resources?  

We are already seeing increasing Chinese and Russian state-led activity, albeit with private sector plug-ins, and a rescheduled NASA program will see a return to the Moon, and to much the same sites that China and Russia are also targeting, Tony Milligan, Senior Researcher at the Cosmological Visionaries project at King’s College London and one of the paper’s co-authors, told me.  So, the initial stages of tension development over the coming decade may look like a continuation of the old cold war, albeit with China as a bigger player, he says.

And also over the next five years, at least five sovereign nations have credible plans to land on the Moon (China, India-Japan, Russia, USA), write the authors.   In addition, several commercial companies (including PTScientists, Moon Express, Astrobotic, Masten, ispace), and the non-profit SpaceIL, have stated intentions to do so, they note.

However, Elvis thinks that an initial point of contention could come with the construction of solar power towers.

Elvis says that the first lunar human base will need a 100 kW or so. A few 20-meter-high solar panels could supply that power, he says. But because the Sun circles very close to the horizon at the lunar South Pole, at some time during the lunar day one tower will inevitably cast its long shadow on any other towers in the vicinity, says Elvis. To avoid daily lunar blackouts, there will need to be some sort of coordination on where they place their solar power towers, he says.

Does the current 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) offer guidance in avoiding such conflicts?

As Elvis points out, the OST is heavily based on the Antarctic Treaty, with many equivalent points: territorial claims ”on hold”; no military use; no nukes; inspections of facilities consultative meetings of signatories; disputes resolved by negotiation, mediation, and conciliation. 

“The big difference is that for Antarctica disputes can be sent to the International Court of Justice,” said Elvis. “The OST has no enforcement mechanism.”

Can the current outer space treaty be updated?

“On the Moon, you don’t need all out war in order for people to be harmed in avoidable ways, you just need pressures to overextend supply lines, and failures to assist in a timely manner,” said Milligan.

Thus, some level of tacit coordination will be necessary to avoid problems once the Moon rush begins.

Yet coordination will be most effective if it is pursued before actors make difficult-to-reverse commitments to mission designs or substantial investments, Alanna Krolikowski, a political scientist at the Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) and one of the paper’s co-authors, told me.

Even so, Elvis is not overly optimistic about any sort of new negotiated outer space treaty.

It’s hard to see any new treaty being negotiated in today’s situation, says Elvis. Not only because of increased nationalism, he says, but also because in 1967 there were really only two players: the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. Now there are many, and an increasing number, including commercial companies, says Elvis. Conflict on the Moon itself may begin as a kind of arms race, where one party tries to exclude another from a valuable location, and the response is to find a way to by-pass these ploys, he says.

“After a certain point some mechanism to resolve these disputes will be necessary; the alternative is not good,” says Elvis.

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