The Moon has Resources, but Not Enough to Go Around

It’s no secret that in this decade, NASA and other space agencies will be taking us back to the Moon (to stay, this time!) The key to this plan is developing the necessary infrastructure to support a sustainable program of crewed exploration and research. The commercial space sector also hopes to create lunar tourism and lunar mining, extracting and selling some of the Moon’s vast resources on the open market.

Ah, but there’s a snag! According to an international team of scientists led by the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), there may not be enough resources on the Moon to go around. Without some clear international policies and agreements in place to determine who can claim what and where, the Moon could quickly become overcrowded, overburdened, and stripped of its resources.

The team consisted of Martin Elvis, a CfA astronomer who led the study, as well as Alanna Krolikowski (Missouri University of Science and Technology) and Tony Milligan (King’s College London). The paper that describes their findings recently appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A titled “Concentrated lunar resources: imminent implications for governance and justice.”

Elevation map of the Moon showing major craters. Credit: NASA/GSFC/DLR/ASU/M. Elvis, A. Krosilowski, T. Milligan (Overlay)

As Dr. Elvis explained in a CfA press release, he and his colleagues were motivated by what they see as common assumptions regarding lunar exploration:

“A lot of people think of space as a place of peace and harmony between nations. The problem is there’s no law to regulate who gets to use the resources, and there are a significant number of space agencies and others in the private sector that aim to land on the moon within the next five years. We looked at all the maps of the Moon we could find and found that not very many places had resources of interest, and those that did were very small. That creates a lot of room for conflict over certain resources.”

Currently, there are already treaties in place for governing activities in space. For example, there’s the Outer Space Treaty that was signed in 1967 by the US, the Soviet Union, and the UK and has since been ratified by a total of 110 nations. In addition to banning nuclear weapons’ testing and deployment in space, this treaty forbids nations from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies.

Then there are the more recent Artemis Accords, which reaffirms the commitment of participants to coordinate and notify each other of their activities on the Moon. However, neither the Outer Space Treaty nor the Artemis Accords forbade private companies or individuals from declaring ownership of celestial objects, leaving the door open for things like asteroid prospecting and mining, and lunar mining.

Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the Moon. Credits: NASA

At present, the discussions have centered on scientific vs. commercial activities on the Moon and the rules regarding who can extract resources from where. Much of this arises from the fact that space agencies and commercial interests hope to harvest resources locally – In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) – in order to meet their needs in a cost-effective manner. As Elvis explained:

“You don’t want to bring resources for mission support from Earth, you’d much rather get them from the Moon. Iron is important if you want to build anything on the moon; it would be absurdly expensive to transport iron to the moon. You need water to survive; you need it to grow food—you don’t bring your salad with you from Earth—and to split into oxygen to breathe and hydrogen for fuel.”

Interest in lunar resources and concerns about appropriation go all the way back to the early days of the Space Race. During the Apollo Era, extensive research was conducted that explored the availability of resources like water, iron, and helium. More recently, research has focused on continuous access to solar power, water ice deposits, and possibly volatile compounds in permanently-shadowed areas on the Moon.

Interest in the moon as a location for extracting resources isn’t new. An extensive body of research dating back to the Apollo program has explored the availability of resources such as helium, water, and iron, with more recent research focusing on continuous access to solar power, cold traps and frozen water deposits, and even volatiles that may exist in shaded areas on the surface of the moon.

Image showing the distribution of surface ice at the Moon’s south pole (left) and north pole (right), detected by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument. Credits: NASA

According to Milligan, a Senior Researcher with the Cosmological Visionaries Project at King’s College London, the question of resources doesn’t tackle the actual problem. “The biggest problem is that everyone is targeting the same sites and resources: states, private companies, everyone,” he said. “But they are limited sites and resources. We don’t have a second moon to move on to. This is all we have to work with.”

There is also the risk that these sites and their resources are more limited than is currently believed. For this reason, scientists are eager to return to the Moon to get a clearer picture of resource availability before anyone starts prospecting and extracting anything. Said Elvis:

“We need to go back and map resource hot spots in better resolution. Right now, we only have a few miles at best. If the resources are all contained in a smaller area, the problem will only get worse. If we can map the smallest spaces, that will inform policymaking, allow for info-sharing and help everyone to play nice together so we can avoid conflict.”

Right now, the main challenge for policymakers will be to characterize the resources at stake at each individual site and it is clear that more research is needed to inform policy. But according to Krolikowski, an assistant professor of science and technology policy at Missouri S&T), a conceptual foundation already exists that (combined with good old-fashioned business sense) could lead to a comprehensive legal regime.

Conceptual illustration of permanently shadowed, shallow icy craters near the lunar south pole. Credits: UCLA/NASA

For example, the Outer Space Treaty and Artemis Accords emphasize that activities on the Moon must be consistent with international law. They also hold signatories accountable for the activities of third parties in areas where they have jurisdiction. Beyond that, countless legal questions need to be addressed, but there are efforts underway to make sure that this happens in advance of any lunar settlement.

For example, you have organizations like the Space Court Foundation (SCF), an educational nonprofit established by legal scholars and space experts dedicated to fostering a conversation about the evolving domain known as “space law.” As we addressed in a previous article, the Foundation is also creating an archive where pertinent documentation and the most up-to-date version of space laws can be found.

According to Krolikowski, another step that needs to be taken is to will convene the parties that will be actively searching the identified resource sites within the next decade or so. Among the most important issues that need to be addressed is loss-aversion, where strategies can be developed to prevent overcrowding, interference, and other worst-case scenarios at individual sites.

In addition, insights can provided by examining research on comparable sites on Earth. Said Krolikowski:

“Examples of analogs on Earth point to mechanisms for managing these challenges. Common-pool resources on Earth, resources over which no single act can claim jurisdiction or ownership, offer insights to glean. Some of these are global in scale, like the high seas, while other are local like fish stocks or lakes to which several small communities share access.”

In this illustration, an astronaut carefully climbs down the ladder and places her foot on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

So far, multiple space agencies have announced plans for creating a permanent human outpost on the Moon – including NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the China National Space Administration (CNSA), Roscomos, and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). There are also numerous plans to create bases that would allow for lunar tourism and other commercial ventures.

For each of these plans, sites must be scouted well in advance to determine if they have the right balance of resources. These are not only necessary for building and maintaining the necessary structures, but ensuring that they can meet the needs of their occupants in a way that is sustainable. But with limited sites and resources to work with, procedures will need to be in place to ensure that we don’t end up fighting over what’s there.

Just one more challenge that must be addressed before humanity can plant its boots and flags on the Moon again. But on the plus side, this shows just how close we are to becoming an “interplanetary civilization.” The fact that are we are at this stage where we must consider how to resolve legal and territorial disputes on the Moon shows how close we are to returning there to stay.

Regardless of how we choose to resolve this matter, the next two decades will certainly be an interesting time to be alive!

Further Reading: CfA, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A