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Legal vacuum risks space cowboys in a new frontier

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Published on 25 January 2016

Legal vacuum
Legal vacuum

Dr Chris Newman, Reader in Law at the University of Sunderland, is the author of Seeking Tranquillity: Embedding sustainability in lunar exploration. Published in the prestigious academic journal Space Policy, it highlights the immediate need for action in an area which is still based on Cold War treaties.

According to Dr Newman lunar sustainability – establishing that damage to the lunar environment is necessary - is falling through the cracks of policy debates, and that the current regulatory approach focuses on harm to humanity rather than harm to the environment itself.

He said: "Early attempts at lunar exploration involved simply crashing probes sent from the Earth into the lunar surface and measuring the force of the impact. The headline policy, perhaps understandably given the concerns of the time, prohibited the placing of nuclear weapons in outer space, including basing them on the Moon.

"It is about regulation for all space activity that has clear criteria for the scope of operations that the environment of the Moon can accommodate. In embedding sustainability at the heart of human activity on the Moon, the space faring community would be ensuring that the scar tissue of human activity does not irreparably damage our celestial sibling."

Unlike the Earth, the Moon doesn’t possess the natural mechanisms for dealing with both natural and man-made influences so will retain these irrevocable scars on its fragile environment for the foreseeable future.

While supporting the need to use the Moon as a staging post for further space exploration, Dr Newman is not convinced there’s enough evidence of economically enriching material to consider lunar mining, but warns stalling on creating policy will end in abuse of the inaction.

He added: "The stalemate that exists over the allocation of lunar property rights means that a vacuum currently exists. This vacuum may well be filled by opportunistic and speculative enterprises unconcerned with the preservation of the lunar environment.

"Prohibition on commercial mining will not stop the Moon becoming a vital part of exploratory infrastructure, but it will serve to define the role of the Moon as a sustainable hub for future exploration and research.

"Policy makers and lawyers need to acknowledge that the moon is separate from other celestial bodies, and the issues it faces are unique. Disassociating lunar property rights from other, more potentially economically attractive bodies such as comets would reflect this reality and disengage the Moon from this key area of discord."

Ultimately, Dr Newman concludes, it is the will of individual nations that will determine whether sustainability can be embedded into mainstream space policy. There is cause for optimism after recent comments made by Frank A. Rose, the US Assistant Secretary to the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. 

Mr Rose said: "Sustaining the space environment is critical for all of man-kind - for our aspirations, our economies, our environment, our health, as well as our security. If we are serious about maintaining the space environment for future generations, we must support measures that promote positive activities in space and refrain from proposing ineffective measures that will fail to unify us in solving the challenges we face".

Despite this Dr Newman is clear that there is a long way to go before any form of space regulation can be implemented.

He concluded: "Any optimism must be tempered with realism, given the way in which politicians have failed to grasp terrestrial issues such as climate change. There is also the fact that a form of common ownership that is akin to ‘international socialism’ is an idea that is unpalatable to American ideology and unacceptable politically.

"Sustainability is not about simply retaining a pristine environment. The Moon is Planet Earth’s unique companion, and a policy of sustainability could be an enduring legacy of this new era of lunar exploration."