Commitment to Artemis Accords affirms Australia’s rising star in space
12 Jan 2021|

Australia’s star in the global space firmament is rising steadily. The Australian government signed the Artemis Accords in October, one of eight nations to commit to the agreement setting out principles for cooperation in civil exploration and peaceful use of the moon, Mars, near-earth comets and asteroids.

Formulated by NASA under the Trump administration, the accords establish a positive foundation for human space exploration in the coming decades and a common basis for cooperation in deep space. They are likely to be fully supported by Joe Biden’s incoming administration. Biden is also likely to support the Artemis project’s goals of a return to the moon and then on to Mars, though the landing of American astronauts on the lunar surface will probably be delayed from the current target of 2024 until later in the decade.

Australia’s signing of the accords signals that our space ambitions are expansive and ambitious. We’re set to be part of the human adventure that is just getting underway, and that will mark the beginning of the next phase in space exploration.

Space resource utilisation, on the moon and on resource-rich asteroids near earth, is a big focus of the accords. The potential to access valuable minerals will be a key aspect of global space activity beyond the low-earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit (or LEO to GEO) region in the next two decades. That will include mining lunar ice for oxygen and hydrogen to make rocket fuel and to sustain human-occupied lunar bases. Those activities will demand a sustained human presence on and around the moon, realistically from the late 2020s, to eventually get human missions to Mars, probably by the late 2030s.

There have to be principles in place guiding conduct to make that happen. An absence of regulation could leading to a ‘Wild West’ approach that would deepen competition, either between nations or between commercial entities. With that in mind, it’s interesting that China, Russia and India have yet to sign the accords. A failure to do so soon would suggest they’ve chosen a competitive, rather than a cooperative, approach.

Australia has confirmed its intention to work with the other key space-faring nations and to play a full role consistent with the accords. The accords recognise the 1967 Outer Space Treaty as a foundation for future activities and provide a sound basis to update space law and to emphasise transparency and cooperation by ensuring interoperability of space capability. That means Australian space companies need to think about how their products will ‘plug and play’ with their partners’ systems and how they will promote a coordinated and cooperative approach that provides guidance for developing Australian space capability.

Two key sections of the accords are section 10, on space resources, and section 11, on deconfliction of space activities. They state that ‘extraction and utilisation of space resources … should be executed in a manner that complies with the Outer Space Treaty’, and that such activity ‘does not inherently constitute national appropriation under Article 11 of the Outer Space Treaty.’

That’s a declaration that signatories to the accords will honour the spirit and letter of the Outer Space Treaty and not seek to claim territory on the moon or to grab resource-rich areas of other celestial bodies for themselves. It’s a big step forward in shaping the debate over how to manage major-power competition in space, and puts pressure on states that haven’t signed up to the accords—including China, Russia and India—to play by the same rules.

China has been proceeding apace with its own space program, which includes plans to test technologies for mining asteroids and to set up a space station by 2022. In December, the Chang’e-5 lunar mission collected rock and dust samples from the moon and delivered them safely back to earth after planting a flag on the lunar surface. The big unknown is whether China will work with the accord states or simply continue to do its own thing. Setting one standard for the signatories and another for China could see international cooperation quickly unravel.

Section 11 sets out a framework for the deconfliction of space activities in line with the principles established in the United Nations guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. Adopted by the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 2019, the guidelines are a natural place to start.

The accords are also consistent with Article IX of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty in their reinforcement of the importance of refraining from any intentional actions that might generate harmful interference. They emphasise information sharing and provide for the creation of ‘safety zones’, which signatories can declare in order to inform others about space activities such as the establishment of facilities on the moon. These are not declarations of sovereignty, however. The accords commit all signatories to ‘respect the principle of free access to all areas of celestial bodies and all other provisions of the Outer Space Treaty in their use of safety zones’.

The accords establish the principles that will underpin an effective and viable legal and regulatory approach for human space exploration. They will be the basis for further debate on space law and regulations needed to manage space activities, particularly now that humanity is preparing to return to the moon after an absence of more than 50 years.

It’s heartening to see Australia playing a direct and highly visible role in this space diplomacy through its space agency. That can open up all sorts of opportunities for Australia’s commercial space sector to contribute to NASA’s Artemis project and to other international activities on and around the moon, and beyond to the asteroids and to Mars.

Our support for the accords reinforces our rising status as a space actor and strengthens international cooperation with our key partners in space.

The government’s decision to look beyond a ground-based space program and embrace a role in the Artemis project is as important a step forward for Australia in space as the decision to establish the Australian Space Agency itself.