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Once in a Blue Moon – International Cooperation under the Artemis Accords

Source: Unsplash/ NASA

Jonathan Lim

On October 13, the US-led Artemis Accords were signed by the heads of the national space agencies of the US, Canada, Italy, Luxembourg, the UAE, and the UK as part of the 2020 International Astronautical Congress. The multilateral agreement represented a pivotal moment for international space law and policy, with the Accords’ members collectively committing to the peaceful exploration, development, and utilisation of the moon and other celestial bodies.

The Accords set forth a shared vision for common principles, grounded within existing international space law agreements and precedent, for the creation of a safe and transparent environment conducive to exploration, science, and commercial activities. This is tied to current US plans under the Artemis program, which seeks to land the first woman and man on the Moon by 2024.

The agreement has received sharp criticism from several leading space powers, who paint the attempt as part of US efforts to maintain their technical dominance in space, potentially establishing a newfound monopoly under the guise of creating a multilateral rules-based international order. Questions thus arise of whether the Accords will prove conducive to the maintenance of international peace, stability, and the preservation of outer space as the province of all mankind.

The origins of the Accords can be traced to Washington’s interest in maintaining its technical and scientific dominance in outer space, coupled with a growing desire to commercialise space. This was highlighted under the 2015 US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (“Space Act”), wherein the US government affirmed that it would recognise the right of US citizens and industries “to engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources” - paving the way for private companies to extract and sell resources acquired in space.

In April 2020, Trump issued an Executive Order which affirmed the Space Act, highlighting that outer space does not exist as a “global commons”, which was outlined under the 1979 Moon Agreement. This ran counter to the long-standing international agreement that outer space should be explored and governed by international consensus. This was followed in May by an announcement that NASA had commenced drafting the Accords, with the intent of providing a framework under international law for the extraction and sale of resources in space.

The Accords consist of 13 Articles directed to “strengthen peaceful relations between nations”. This includes the provision of emergency service to astronauts in distress, the preservation of outer space heritage, the management and remediation of orbital debris, conflict resolution, and the extraction of space resources. Notably, the document marks the first instance of proactive commitment by states toward the preservation of space artefacts as historically significant human sites and artefacts in an attempt to preserve humanity’s collective cultural heritage.

However, international criticism has arisen concerning the Accords’ compliance with the prevailing international space law framework, as laid down under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST). This concerns the US’s ability to creatively exploit a loophole within international space law under Article II, which provides that “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” The frail definition of “national appropriation” has supported the view that the extraction and sale of resources is not prohibited, and is therefore permitted.

Furthermore, the expanding list of signatories to the Accords demonstrates a growing international consensus concerning the exploitation of the moon, seemingly indicating that participating states are complicit in setting a precedent contributing to the erosion of the OST.

The Accords highlight Washington’s disregard for best practice concerning the sustainable development of outer space, setting a dangerous precedent for states to follow. Consequently, the absence of a multilateral and comprehensive approach to the management of space resources as a global commons may result in a disjointed approach to the growing dangers posed by debris and dangers to the outer space environment.

The unilateral creation of “safety zones” under Section 11 of the Accords has also raised concerns over potential violations of the OST. Washington seeks the creation of zones around a state’s areas of activity that will effectively exclude all other actors, implicitly providing for the exertion of state sovereignty over a specified territory.

The intent of safety zones is to serve as a purely informational guide to actors on the lunar surface to properly discharge their duty with “due regard to the corresponding interests” of other actors. In the event of armed conflict, it is anticipated that this measure will likely justify future escalations in violence concerning control over areas on the lunar surface.

While the Accords symbolise a significant attempt to codify emergent principles of international space law, the roster of signatories appears more as an extension of Washington’s alliance network than a truly universal and inclusive set of principles. Most apparent is the continuing absence of any developing nations among the signatories of the Accords, indicative of a failure to promote the common benefit and freedom of outer space. This portrays the agreement as an attempt by Washington to impose its own quasi-legal rules upon the wider international community.

In particular, the Russian space agency Roscosmos voiced concerns over the Accords as being too “US centric” for Moscow to participate, a potentially serious factor in cooperation between Russia and the US in space affairs. Russia’s initial repulsion to the Accords was highlighted by tweets issued by Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, who painted the Accords as the creation of a new “coalition of the willing”. However, referencing the basis of multilateral partnership underlying the existing International Space Station program as the most beneficial template for international cooperation in space, Roscosmos outlined that US efforts would not detract from its continuing cooperation with NASA.

On the other hand, as highlighted within Chinese state media the Global Times, Beijing interprets the Accords as part of NASA’s growing role as a tool of US diplomacy, exhibiting Washington’s apparent political agenda to unilaterally establish the ground rules for lunar resource exploitation. Noting the achievement of independence and localisation across China’s space industry, Chinese officials view the Accords as further attempts to isolate and pressure China internationally. This has been exacerbated by existing challenges to bilateral cooperation in outer space, with the 2011 Wolf Amendment prohibiting cooperation between NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) following fears of illicit technology transfer and military applications for space technologies.

Beyond the rhetoric espoused by state media, Chinese scientists have emphasized Beijing’s ambitions to be the first space power to colonize the Moon. Independent Chinese legal experts appear receptive to the Accords and their contributions in crystalizing growing international opinions on the commercialization of space and management of outer space resources.

However, the absence of the national space agencies of Germany, France and India to the Accords does not bode well for their wider acceptance. These states possess well-developed space programs, and stand to greatly benefit from involvement within the Artemis Project. Their opposition has been mainly attributed to a preference toward the more established 1979 Moon Agreement, and desire to see a properly negotiated international agreement as opposed to a series of bilateral agreements between national space agencies.

Ultimately, the Accords stand as an indication of US leadership under the Trump administration. They highlight Washington’s growing interest to capitalise upon its technological prowess in space, translate its terrestrial alliance networks to the outer space domain, and promote the democratization of space through commercial measures. With China prevented from participating in the Accords, and Russia voicing its desire to pursue a more independent space policy, these factors detract from the Accords’ legitimacy and heighten the possibility for intensified disagreements and conflict in outer space in the coming decades.

It is hoped that the Accords will maintain and promote the longstanding rules-based international order in space, as maintained under the OST. As more and more partners voice their participation in the Accords over time, the potential for their wider acceptance within the international community carries the possibility for their eventual recognition and validation within customary international law.


Jonathan Lim is an Australian lawyer, geopolitical analyst, and cybersecurity analyst. He has been designated as a Young Leader with Pacific Forum, former East Asia Fellow with Young Australians in International Affairs, and Special Advisor to the SGAC Space and Cybersecurity Project Group. His expertise spans Chinese foreign policy, cyber warfare, and space law.