As our technology advances and space travel becomes more common, it is inevitable that the resources of outer space will come within our reach. Who will have the rights to these resources? Is it even possible to claim anything in outer space?
Amid these unknowns, a second moon race is quietly under way. Unlike during the Cold War, however, the goal this time is not just to reach the moon but, ultimately, to develop the lunar resources that are now known to exist there.
Toward this eventual objective, China has plans to touch down a lunar rover by the end of the year and India has similar plans for a roaming moon vehicle. The original Space Race rivals are involved as well — earlier this month, the United States launched a satellite to orbit the moon and Russia is assisting India in its project.
There is also the Lunar X-Prize competition for academic and other private teams that successfully land a robotic rover on the lunar surface.
The moon’s exterior has an area comparable to that of North and South America combined. There are deposits of such precious metals as aluminum, platinum, titanium and other rare earth elements. There is Helium-3, a rare variation of Helium that can facilitate clean nuclear fusion on Earth.
Harrison Schmitt, the lunar module pilot of Apollo 17, who was the only scientist among the astronauts to visit the moon — a geologist — and the second to last person to walk on the moon so far, champions the use of lunar resources, saying: “A Shuttle bay filled with the stuff [Helium-3] could power the U.S. for a year.”
At this point, though, it is not known if it is legally possible to own anything that occurs naturally in space.
Magna Carta of Space
The only accepted legal framework regarding space property is the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty. This was the second nonarmament treaty to prevent territorial disputes on newly explored lands. In 1960, President Eisenhower proposed that the principles of the Antarctic Treaty — the first nonarmament treaty — be applied to space, the moon and other celestial objects, barring these objects from national appropriation.
In addition, the treaty also stated that ownership of an object launched into space, landed, or constructed on a celestial body is retained, but with regard to celestial resources, the Outer Space Treaty reflected its time.
In the 1960s, there were only two nations that had the ability to venture into space. Fifty years later, there is the emerging possibility that individuals and private interests will be going into space not for national appropriation but for financial gain.
Since the Outer Space Treaty does not address individuals, some people maintain that this is sufficient rationale for allowing private property in space.
Legally, part of owning something takes more than a claim but actual possession. Does landing a probe on an object constitute ownership? There may be a precedent. In 1989, a Maryland district court ruled that a submersible vehicle, without any human presence or planting of a flag, was able to establish a salvage claim in international waters.
Space may be similar to the infant Internet of a quarter century ago with many issues that need consideration. As investors and commercial ventures enter the realm of outer space, a careful legal framework will need to be established.
NASA launched its most recent lunar probe earlier this month. On Sept. 6 at 11:27 p.m., the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lifted off Earth’s surface riding atop a Minotaur V rocket, a ballistic missile converted into a space launch vehicle.
Unlike the powerful Saturn V rocket that allowed the Apollo astronauts to reach the moon in three days, the Minotaur is much less powerful. As a result, it will take 30 days for the probe to reach orbit around the moon. In the intervening time, the spacecraft will make orbital loops around the Earth. At just the right time in those loops, the craft will fire its main rocket so that each orbit takes it farther from Earth until it is captured by the moon’s gravity.
The purpose of LADEE is to answer a long-standing — and puzzling — observation made by some of the Apollo astronauts. During the time they were in orbit around the moon, some of them reported seeing a glow of light near the moon’s limb before the sun came into view — a subtle, presunrise radiance above the distant lunar horizon. If the moon did not have any atmosphere to scatter the sunlight — as had been assumed — then there could not be a lunar “dawn.”
It may be that lunar dust is lofted above the moon’s surface, perhaps by becoming electrically charged by sunlight (a somewhat similar process happens in Saturn’s rings), making a tenuous lunar atmosphere. The LADEE mission seeks to gather detailed information on the size and composition of any thin lunar atmosphere that might exist.
Venus, Saturn and Mercury can be found close together and rather low between the west and southwest points as the sky begins to darken. Venus is by far the brightest of these planets and it will become slightly brighter during October. Saturn can be found to the right of Venus; binoculars are helpful to see the Ringed Planet in the bright twilight. Mercury is presently to the lower right of Saturn but its position shifts rapidly from evening to evening since it is the fastest-moving planet.
By next weekend, Mercury will appear directly below Saturn. By then, both planets might be a challenge to find in the sunset sky without the use of binoculars. During twilight on Oct. 6, a thin lunar crescent will appear between Mercury and Saturn. All three objects will first come into view about a half hour after sunset and will be very low above the west-southwestern horizon; don’t wait too long to look because the three will have set within an hour after the sun. The next evening, the lunar crescent will be to the immediate right of Venus while Saturn will be to the lower right of the moon.
Richard Monda is an astronomer living in the Capital Region.