Who owns space?

Who owns space? Who owns the moon? Or do we refer to space as the final frontier for pioneers of human experience to be able to realize their dreams of economizing resources and providing for earth’s inhabitants?

None of these questions have clear answers. Views are often competing on the development and extraction of those resources. On April 6th, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order 1) directing the Secretary of State to lead a US government effort to develop agreements with like-minded foreign states to enable safe and sustainable operations for the commercial recovery and use of space resources, and object to treat the 1979 Moon Agreement as customary international law 2) stating that the US may draw on legal precedent from other domains to promote the recovery and use of space resources and 3) having all American industry and industries of other countries establish stable international practices by which private citizens, companies, and economies can benefit from expanding economic activity.

The 1979 Moon Treaty was an attempt to form some collaborative legal structure about the moon but was not signed by any country that had its own significant space program except India. The United States, European Space Agency, Russia, China, and Japan neither signed nor recognized it. In 2015, under President Obama, Congress passed a law allowing American companies and citizens to use moon and asteroid resources, part of an ongoing part of America to clearly establish the intent to monetize the use of space materials, much of which are extremely valuable. At another point, perhaps, we’ll get into the money of asteroids, but for now suffice it to say that the moon provides its own resources. China has already ratified the intent to establish a moon base on the surface, and the United States is clearly not going to lag, perhaps proving once again Niccolo Machiavelli’s old dictum that countries grow through competition with each other.

NASA officials have laid out a deadline by which they aim to land two astronauts on the moon in 2024 and to “establish a human presence on and around Earth’s nearest neighbor by 2028. Lunar resources… are key to Artemis’ grand ambitions,” Artemis being the NASA spaceflight program with US commercial companies and international space partners to land on the moon.

Okay, great, we’re going to the moon again and staying this time, but why and what resources on the moon could be so valuable? Isn’t it a great white ball of dirt?

The Moon isn’t made of Cheese

In this blog post, I’m only going to scratch the surface of the benefits of being on the moon, so we’re going to ignore space tethering, space elevators, moon bases, and further expansion/exploration. We’re only going to focus on the moon itself. Sadly, enough, for our foodie followers, the moon is not made of cheese, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless—quite the contrary.

To begin with, the moon is constantly exposed to solar wind, a stream of charged particles that radiates out from the sun. The earth’s magnetic fields protect it from the majority of deposits of the solar wind, which are radioactive and, over time, lethal to humans. This is why astronauts are only allowed a certain amount of time in space throughout their whole life, because even with our space suits and technology, they are still exposed to the effects of solar wind.

The moon, however, does not have the same atmosphere as earth and is, therefore, constantly exposed. The moon has already received, by estimates, more than one million tons of helium-3, a particular so rare on earth that the moon may very well be our only practical source for the many uses that helium-3 has. The importance of helium-3 cannot be understated; its uses extend to both nuclear power and cryogenics (the art of freezing things, you might say). Helium-3 is special because it is the only discovered energy source that can be used for nuclear fusion that does not cause surrounding materials to become radioactive.

Just as a recap, our nuclear plants today are all based on fission, or smashing atoms together to tear them apart. Fusion is when you smash them together to fuse them together, which is not only a safer and less radioactive solution to fission, as a failed reactor cannot explode or produce radioactive waste, but also may provide the key to unlimited clean energy. Imagine the economic potential with something as powerful as fusion! Energy drains about 2-3% of the average American’s income. The economic activity resulting from freeing up another 2-3% of American dollars in the form of spending or saving would be phenomenal.

We’re not going to talk about cryogenics in this blog but at least be aware that many plans for the future of space travel rely on being able to freeze a human without killing them, and that helium-3 is essential to cryogenics.

In addition to helium-3, the moon is a source for mining oxygen as an element, lunar water (which could require its own blog post about its uses, but it provides rocket fuel for further travel), hydrogen, iron, titanium, aluminum, silicon (which is used to make solar panels), calcium (which is also necessary for solar cells), and magnesium, most of which provide valuable materials for space travel itself, in addition to other goods. While it is still a long stretch that fusion can be discovered and put to use, the moon provides all the other elements in abundance that would be required to build an infrastructure around clean technology, especially as many of those elements are necessary for conducting electricity, such as oxygen and calcium.

Are there companies already trying to mine the moon?

Oh yes, there are at least seven or more companies planning private commercial scouting and mining ventures on the moon, and those don’t include the companies that are planning on asteroid mining. While the companies are still in the early stages of development, the US government, NASA, and other countries are all starting to make decisions about the economics of space. These companies will need to be funded, supplied, and in turn, will feed the economy with energy, raw materials, and new opportunities we can’t even imagine at this point in time.

While the economics of space is still some time away, it’s going to be one of the biggest and most important upcoming sectors in the future, and Emergent will be watching.

Nickolas X Urpi