It’s Time to Start Worrying About Space Junk Around the Moon, Too

Apollo 16 booster
Apollo 16 booster impact on the Moon.

Researchers look to track and mitigate the growing number of space junk objects around the Moon.

It’s getting crowded up there. An increase in military, commercial and scientific launches, coupled with a lower cost for rideshare cubesat launches, means lots more space junk to deal with in coming years. And we’re not just talking about low Earth orbit; the Moon and cis-lunar (near lunar space) is about to become busy as well.

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The Outer Space Treaty was Signed in 1967. Can it Handle the Future of Space Exploration?

Artist rendition of a future mining outpost on the Moon. (Credit: NASA/SAIC/Pat Rawlings)

In a recent study submitted to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society for the 8th Interstellar Symposium special issue, which is due for publication sometime in 2024, Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra, who is a senior research investigator and the Chief Operating Officer and co-founder at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, examines how future space exploration governing laws could evolve, either crewed or uncrewed and in the solar system or beyond. He views this study as an expansion of interplanetary governance models he previously discussed in his book, Sovereign Mars, to explore potential limits on space governance at interstellar distances.

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Artemis Accords Adds 25th, 26th, and 27th Signatory Countries

The current list of the 27 signatory countries for the Artemis Accords. (Credit: NASA)

NASA recently welcomed the newest signatories of the Artemis Accords as Spain, Ecuador, and India became the 25th, 26th, and 27th countries, respectively, to sign on to the historic agreement for cooperation and partnership for space exploration, specifically pertaining to NASA’s Artemis program.

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Move Over Artemis Accords! Behold the Lunar Governance Report and EAGLE Manifesto!

Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the Moon. Credits: NASA

In July 1999, the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) was created with the purpose of representing the “Space Generation” to the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). For this non-governmental organization and professional network, this would consist of bringing the “views of students and young space professionals to the United Nations (UN), space industry and other organizations”.

Given the importance of the Moon for all of our future space exploration goals, SGAC created an interdisciplinary group in June of 2020 that is focused on lunar policy. Known as the Effective and Adaptive Governance for a Lunar Ecosystem (E.A.G.L.E.), this group of 14 young space professionals is dedicated to ensuring that the younger generation has a voice when it comes to the development of regulations for lunar policy.

On May 12th, 2021, the SGAC released the report prepared by the EAGLE group, which outlines their ideas and proposals for how we can ensure that the regulations governing lunar activities are inclusive, effective, and adaptative. It’s known as the Lunar Governance Report, a document that will be presented during the 2021 meetings of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).

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NASA Announces its Artemis Astronauts: 18 People Training to Fly to the Moon

Credit: NASA

In less than four years, NASA will be sending the “first woman and next man” to the Moon as part of the Artemis III mission. This will be the first time that astronauts have landed on the lunar surface since the final mission of the Apollo Program, which was Apollo 17 in 1972. After careful consideration, NASA has announced the names of the 18 astronauts that make up the Artemis Team.

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The Moon has Resources, but Not Enough to Go Around

A geological map of the Moon showing different formations and mineral deposits. Credit: NASA/GSFC/USGS

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.

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NASA and Seven Countries Sign the Artemis Accords for the Exploration of the Moon. Russia Declined to Participate

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

It looks like Russia is thumbing its nose at international cooperation on the Moon. They’ve refused to sign the Artemis Accords, which are a set of rules governing Lunar exploration. NASA and seven other countries have signed on already, with more to come.

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The Moon is the Perfect Spot for SETI

In less than four years, NASA plans to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon as part of Project Artemis. This long-awaited return to the Moon is to be followed by the construction of the Lunar Gateway, the Artemis Base Camp, and a program of “sustainable lunar exploration.” The creation of an enduring human presence on the Moon will also create many opportunities for exciting scientific research.

For example, astronomers want to conduct radio astronomy on the far side of the Moon, where telescopes could probe the earliest period of the Universe free of terrestrial radio interference. Taking this a step further, a team of astronomers recently recommended that a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon (or in lunar orbit) could aid in another important area of research: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)!

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The Space Court Foundation is Now in Session!

Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the Moon. Credits: NASA

With the closing of the Apollo Era, the priorities of the world’s space agencies began to shift. Having spent the past two decades racing to send astronauts to orbit and to the Moon, the focus now changed towards developing the technologies needed to stay there. A new era of international cooperation, space stations, and partnerships between space agencies and the commercial industry is what followed.

In the near future, things are expected to become even more interesting, with plans for the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the mining of Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs), and the establishment of a permanent human presence on the Moon. Beyond the logistical and technical challenges this poses, there’s been no shortage of concern about the legal issues and implications this will raise as well.

To this end, a group of legal scholars and space experts recently came together to form the Space Court Foundation (SCF), a non-profit educational organization created to foster a conversation about these and other related space issues. By beginning the conversation now, they hope, the public will be able to play an active role in the burgeoning and evolving domain known as “space law.”

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NASA Proposes the Artemis Accords. The New Rules for Lunar Exploration

Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the Moon. Credits: NASA

As part of Project Artemis, which was announced in May of 2019, NASA will be sending the first woman and the next man to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. To make this happen, NASA has partnered with the private aerospace industry to develop all the necessary systems. At the same time, NASA has entered into collaborative agreements with other space agencies to ensure that lunar exploration is open to all.

To formalize these agreements and ensure that all parties are committed to the same goals, NASA recently drafted a framework for cooperative lunar exploration and development. Known as the Artemis Accords, this series of bilateral agreements (which are grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967) establish common principles for international partners who want to become part of humanity’s long-awaited return to the Moon.

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