Our solar system is vast, but this corner of the galaxy is getting a little more crowded these days as different countries, space agencies and companies seek to explore and land on the moon, Mars and beyond. On Friday, NASA released the Artemis Accords to establish a framework of principles for safely and responsibly planning for humanity’s return to the moon.
The Artemis Accords align with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, regarded as the basis of international space law to prevent the claiming of outer space by a country or sovereign. It also established free and peaceful exploration that reinforces each country’s responsibility for its activities, damage or contamination — and that no weapons should be placed in orbit.
“It’s a new dawn for space exploration! Today I’m honored to announce the #Artemis Accords agreements — establishing a shared vision and set of principles for all international partners that join in humanity’s return to the Moon. We go, together,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine shared on Twitter Friday.
Some of NASA’s international partners for Artemis include the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos and the Japanese Space Agency known as JAXA, short for Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
Back to the moon
It’s been one year since NASA and Bridenstine released the name of Artemis, the next program to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024. The program relies on partnerships, both international and commercial, to create a sustainable and lasting presence of humans on and around the moon, with the goal of eventually using Artemis to land the first people on Mars.
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, known as UNOOSA, responded to the announcement of the accords by tweeting, “#spaceexploration requires a cooperative & responsible approach. Yesterday, @NASA announced the #Artemis Accords, calling for international partnerships & adherence to the existing normative #space frameworks including #OST, Debris Guidelines & Registration Convention.”
Bridenstine acknowledged that NASA will continue engaging with UNOOSA and other key governing agencies to make sure that the Outer Space Treaty principles are carried out through the Artemis Accords. “Together we will build a safe, peaceful and prosperous future in space,” he tweeted.
A peaceful frontier
The accords rely on peaceful intent, transparency, interoperability and sharing of scientific data. These guiding principles apply to international and commercial partnerships that will operate in the space between the Earth and the moon, known as cislunar space.
“International space agencies that join NASA in the Artemis program will do so by executing bilateral Artemis Accords agreements, which will describe a shared vision for principles, grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to create a safe and transparent environment, which facilitates exploration, science and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy,” according to NASA.
Much like the International Space Station encourages cooperation between nations, the Artemis Accords reinforce that space exploration is conduced for peaceful purposes as outlined in the Outer Space Treaty. Another aspect of this goal is to encourage peaceful relationships between nations.
NASA is encouraging the countries participating in Artemis to share policies and plans in a transparent way and create interoperability between systems so information can easily be exchanged and shared. Participants are also encouraged to share scientific data publicly to benefit from discoveries made during the Artemis program.
The safety aspects of the Accords reinforce specific aspects of the Outer Space Treaty. This includes rescuing and returning astronauts and objects launched into space, and “taking all reasonable steps possible to render assistance to astronauts in distress.”
The accords state that it’s imperative to register space objects to avoid interference, as well as share the location and nature of activities to create “Safety Zones” that partners will respect.
Given the sustainability focus for the Artemis program, the accords reinforce the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space established in 2007, with an addition that NASA and other nations will plan to mitigate debris in orbit, as well as safely and effectively disposing of spacecraft.
The moon landings during the Apollo program left behind artifacts and created historic sites on another body besides Earth, so the accords stressed the protection of those sites and items.
At the same time, the accords acknowledged that resources would need to be extracted from the moon, Mars and asteroids “to support safe and sustainable space exploration and development.”
These will be carried out in accordance with specific articles of the Outer Space Treaty, which prevent national appropriation, reinforce responsibility for activities and open communication about those activities.
This means that the responsibility of activities carried out — by government or non-government entities — falls on the nation they belong to, and that non-government entities require authorization and supervision.
The location, nature and results of activities must also be shared with the “Secretary-General of the United Nations as well as the public and the international scientific community,” according to Article XI of the Outer Space Treaty.
The road to 2024
Since the announcement of the Artemis program in 2019, NASA has extended the call for international and commercial partners.
The Artemis program will involve the Orion spacecraft, the Gateway and the Space Launch System rocket, known as SLS. The SLS rocket will send Orion, astronauts and large cargo to the moon all at once, NASA said.
The Orion spacecraft can carry four crew members and support deep-space missions, unlike previous craft designed for short flights. Orion will dock at the Gateway, a spaceship that will go into orbit around the moon and be used as a lunar outpost. About 250,000 miles from Earth, the Gateway will allow easier access to the entire surface of the moon and potentially deep-space exploration.
“The Artemis program represents a new era where robots and humans will work together to push the boundaries of what’s possible in space exploration,” Bridenstine wrote in a blog post.
“Inspiring future generations to help us confront the challenges of human space exploration is vital to the success of Artemis and all of NASA’s future.”