Who owns the moon’s precious water?


The darkest places on the moon’s surface haven’t seen light in billions of years. Inside these lightless craters, temperatures can plummet to minus 391 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s one of the most extreme places in our solar system, but that’s where NASA is going.

Because that’s where the water is.

The U.S. space agency, now equipped with a powerful new megarocket, is preparing to establish a base on the moon, a venture that will allow NASA to journey into even deeper space. Harvesting this ice, the space agency says(Opens in a new window), is crucial for making drinkable water, oxygen, and fuel for rockets. As soon as 2025, astronauts may land near enticing craters in the shadowy lunar south pole. They’ll have their eyes on the prize. A NASA rover will, too(Opens in a new window).

Yet the U.S. and other countries with lunar ambitions can’t legally claim any territory or sovereignty on the moon. Amid the first space race in the 1960s, many global nations signed the Outer Space Treaty(Opens in a new window), which prohibits any country from owning parts of space. But harvesting extraterrestrial resources is shaping up to be a different story. It’s now inevitable that natural riches will be mined from other worlds, especially as the 21st Century space race heats(Opens in a new window) up. In the new cosmic frontier, who will be allowed to take what, and where? It’s a murky geopolitical realm — with some partial-answers, and many more questions.

“Nothing is simple,” Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita and former director at the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law of the University of Mississippi School of Law, told Mashable, in reference to lunar resource extraction. “There are currently no clear moon specific rules.”

But there ought to be, soon. “It is a fact: we’re in a space race,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson recently told Politico(Opens in a new window), while speaking about China’s rapidly advancing technological space prowess. And the race is, once again, to the moon.

An artist’s conception of a moon base with solar panels, agricultural pods, and habitats.
Credit: ESA / P. Carril

The need to harvest ice

The Outer Space Treaty bans ownership of the moon. But it allows nations to freely explore it (“…outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;”). Pioneering Apollo astronauts certainly used, and relied, on the moon. They used it to dump poop(Opens in a new window), drive around, plunge tubes into the soil, take samples, play golf(Opens in a new window), plant flags(Opens in a new window), leave mementos(Opens in a new window), run experiments(Opens in a new window), and beyond.

But these astronauts stayed on the moon for, at most, a few days. Staying weeks, or longer, while supporting numerous people and diverse scientific operations will at some point require using lunar water. It’s inherent to the long-term exploration of another world. A cubic meter of water weighs well over a ton — a huge “shipping” challenge. So any explorers will depend on water resources at their destination (in addition to drinking water recycled from sweat and urine, like astronauts aboard the space station).

an artist's conception of astronauts working on the moon

An artist’s conception of astronauts working on the moon.
Credit: NASA

NASA astronauts, then, might harvest moon ice even before there are clear laws on what resources a nation — for the needs of exploration — can extract from the moon. The space agency expects moon ice will “fuel” their lunar base(Opens in a new window). NASA has written and signed the Artemis Accords(Opens in a new window) — broad, non-binding principles for cooperating peacefully in space — that include a succinct section on “Space Resources.” As of January 2023, 23 nations have signed(Opens in a new window). “The Signatories note that the utilization of space resources can benefit humankind by providing critical support for safe and sustainable operations,” the hopeful document reads.

But what if a private company — not a nation — found bounties of ice in the lunar south pole, and excavated it? Can they claim the ice? Could they hypothetically sell it to a government, who might need it to make air and fuel, for a sizable profit? The Outer Space Treaty is silent about the private sector. This is where many issues over lunar resources arise.

Who can own lunar resources?

We’re starting to get a clearer picture of who will be able to claim, and sell, lunar resources.

Four nations have laws recognizing that a private company can extract resources in outer space: the U.S., Luxembourg (a wealthy nation with many space companies), Japan, and the United Arab Emirates. Their approaches are not exactly the same, but the leading interpretation resembles international law governing the high seas, explained Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

On Earth, no single nation can occupy or claim the majority of the ocean (the “high seas”). A fishing vessel can freely travel through these international waters and harvest the rich fish and tentacled resources therein – as long as they have a license from their home state and abide by relevant international laws, like on pollution or the conservation of species. “Once the fish are in the net of fishermen, they can sell it,” von der Dunk told Mashable. But no country can point to any part of the high seas and claim the fish; that would be claiming territorial sovereignty.


“There are currently no clear rules.”

How might this regime work on the moon? No nation could point at a crater and claim the ice therein. But, a company could journey to a crater, set-up shop, and extract resources. And then, presumably, these private miners can sell the ice to whomever is buying. And those buyers will likely be deep-pocketed space agencies with ambitions to visit the Red Planet, or perhaps metal-rich asteroids.

a map designating the

On this map, the dark blue designates international waters, or the “high seas.”
Credit: Wikimedia / B1mbo

blue areas designate where NASA may land on the moon

NASA’s 13 potential landing spots for Artemis III, which will return astronauts to the moon.
Credit: NASA

But problems persist, because there’s no “Law of the Moon” overseeing the looming exploitation of a largely untrammeled natural body. “We need to build more concrete details,” emphasized von der Dunk. (Beyond the Artemis Accords, the United Nations has its own group(Opens in a new window) that’s trying to develop potential rules for extracting space resources.) Yes, humans will dig into the moon. But it ought not be an era of lunar destruction. The moon is, of course, a world of great scientific intrigue, holding clues to how our solar system and planet formed. Some regions should likely be protected. A lack of oversight portends excessive or unnecessary damage.

“This would theoretically open the moon to uncoordinated resource extractions,” said Gabrynowicz. “This could lead to unfavorable circumstances on the moon.”

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Lunar laws might also limit territorial clashes, or even promote lunar harmony. Human history is dominated by fights over resources; we can prepare for this potential conflict on the moon. For example, a possible precursor to moon laws, the NASA-led Artemis Accords, allow for the establishment of “safety zones,” which are areas for an entity to work without “harmful interference.” It’s easy to imagine why a space agency wouldn’t want a mining company prospecting for ice amid their work site. The last thing anyone needs in the moon’s murky south pole is miscommunication between people bumbling around in unwieldy moon-suits, resulting in a serious injury. But critical questions are left unanswered: How big can a safety zone be? How long can one exist? Who establishes safety zones? What happens if someone recklessly enters your safety zone?

As the space law experts Mashable spoke to underscored, coherent lunar laws will help avoid chaotic, on-the-fly precedents for how the moon will be harvested. A nation, under the guise of scientific exploration, could claim they have rights to all the ice in a coveted crater for an indeterminate time. A Wild West-style lunar land grab could ensue.

The new frontier is open. It’s barren, inhospitable, and as the probable site of a cosmic travel center and gas station, open to boundless opportunity.





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