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NASA unveils new rules to guide behavior in space and on the lunar surface

The move comes as NASA is scrambling to return to the moon by 2024

An illustration depicts Artemis astronauts on the moon. (AP)

NASA on Friday unveiled a legal framework that would govern the behavior of countries and companies in space and on the moon, including the creation of “safety zones” around sites where mining and exploration would take place on the lunar surface.

The United States has long held that nations and companies should be allowed to extract and use resources on the moon. The new legal framework, known as the Artemis Accords, comes as the U.S. space agency works to return people to the lunar surface by 2024.

NASA would make signing the accords a requirement for allied countries to participate in its lunar exploration program. The proposal, some aspects of which were first reported by Reuters, would “in no way change the 1967 Outer Space Treaty,” which prohibits nations from laying claim to the moon and other celestial bodies, said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Rather, the series of principles would follow the tenets of the treaty and “promote peaceful purposes” that would allow nations “to participate safely in outer space,” Bridenstine said in an interview.

The White House is proposing an international agreement governing mining and commerce on the moon. (Video: Reuters)

The accords already have run into resistance from the head of Russia’s space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, who called them an invasion that would lead to another “Iraq or Afghanistan.”

NASA said it would be “premature to release” the accords ahead of sharing them with allied nations. But a copy obtained by The Washington Post said parties would be required to publicly release “the extent and general nature of operations taking place within” the safety zones “while taking into account appropriate protection of business confidential, national security, and export controlled information.”

Parties would also agree to use the zones “in a manner that encourages scientific discovery, technology demonstration, as well as the safe and efficient extraction and utilization of space resources.” They would also be required to publicly reveal “the extent and general nature of operations taking place within” the zones.

The introduction of the accords comes as NASA is pushing to meet a White House mandate to return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972 under what it is calling the Artemis program. NASA is planning to establish a permanent presence in lunar orbit and on the surface. It is specifically interested in the moon’s south pole where there is water in the form of ice.

Still, NASA is hopeful that Russia, its longtime partner on the International Space Station, would be a signatory, Bridenstine said. The accords are just being rolled out, he said, and NASA would work with Russia, as well as many other countries.

“We encourage Russia to be a part of the Artemis accords,” Bridenstine said. “And we think it would be good for all the world to agree to the right approach to peacefully explore space.”

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China, which last year landed a rover on the far side of the moon, also wants to reach the lunar south pole. NASA must get congressional approval before partnering with China in space, and that would make their participation in the accords difficult. Bridenstine said NASA would “follow the law, 100 percent." But he said that setting a standard of behavior could help influence the way countries operate in space even if they are not signatories.

In pushing for the accords, Bridenstine pointed to a spent Chinese rocket stage that plummeted to Earth this week, making it one of the largest uncontrolled objects to fall from low Earth orbit in nearly 30 years. Villages in West Africa found what they believe to be debris from the rocket. But Bridenstine said had the stage re-entered the atmosphere earlier “it could have hit New York."

“I can think of no better example of why we need the Artemis Accords,” he said. "It’s vital for the U.S. to lead and establish norms of behavior against such irresponsible activities. Space exploration should inspire hope and wonder, not fear and danger.”

Brian Weeden, the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation and who had been briefed on the accords, said the creation of safety zones around mining sites would not lead to nation’s claiming control of lunar territory. “These zones do not establish ownership,” he said. “It is more about establishing safety and coordination, and that is really important.”

The size and scope of those sites would depend on the activity taking place, said Mike Gold, the acting associate administrator for NASA’s Office of International and Interagency Relations, who had a role in drafting the accords.

“We want to avoid conflict, we want to encourage communication,” Gold said. “It’s important for America to lead not just in technology but in policy, and that’s what the Artemis Accords are. It’s the U.S. laying out principals that will not only benefit NASA and its allies, but the whole world.”

The accords follow a law passed in 2015 that allows companies the rights to resources they extract from the moon.

The accords would require signatories to adhere to principles, laid out by the United States, that would help provide a framework for acceptable behavior in space.

Signatories would have to agree, for example, to help provide emergency assistance in the case of an injured astronaut. They would also agree to protect historic sites, such as the Apollo 11 landing area, and share scientific data.

“If you’re a country and you want to participate in the Artemis program back to the moon, this is the agreement you have to sign,” Weeden said. “The U.S. is using these accords to promulgate some specific norms of behavior with regard to space activity.”