The moon and beyond-site for the next gold rush
The Trump administration is drafting a legal blueprint for mining on the moon under a new US-sponsored international agreement called the Artemis Accords. The agreement is the latest effort to cultivate allies around Nasa’s plan to put humans and space stations on the moon within the next decade.
Space is not just a subject of science fiction or fairy tales. It is a treasure trove of resources, drawing the attention of governments and big companies.
The US space agency Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) estimated that asteroids hold an economy worth $700 quintillion, which is equivalent to $95 billion worth for each of us on earth.
So there is no wonder that global and economic superpowers vie for the treasures in Space.
And this race began a while back.
The very first landing on the moon had a political backdrop. In 1957, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, and a few years later they put Yuri Gagarin in Space.
In a bid to match or surpass the achievement of the Soviet Union, US President John F Kennedy proclaimed his immediate desire for the US to land a human on the moon and safely bring him back by the end of the 1960s.
Kennedy wanted to upstage the Soviet Union's space-faring stunt, which the US achieved with Apollo 11. After this, the moon missions slowly tapered off. Only recently, the race began anew.
According to a report published in The Guardian on May 5, the Trump administration is drafting a legal blueprint for mining on the moon under a new US-sponsored international agreement called the Artemis Accords.
The agreement would be the latest effort to cultivate allies around Nasa's plan to put humans and space stations on the moon within the next decade, and it comes at a time when the civilian space agency is playing a growing role in implementing American foreign policy.
The draft pact has not been formally shared with US allies yet.
The Trump administration and other space faring countries see the moon as a key strategic asset in outer space. The moon also has value for long-term scientific research that could enable future missions to Mars – activities that fall under a regime of international space law widely viewed as outdated.
The Artemis Accords, named after Nasa's new Artemis moon program, propose "safety zones" that would surround future moon bases to prevent damage or interference from rival countries or companies operating in close proximity.
The pact also aims to provide a framework under international law for companies to own the resources they mine. The US officials plan to formally negotiate the accords with Canada, Japan, and European countries, as well as the United Arab Emirates, but sources said Russia, a major partner with Nasa on the International Space Station, will not be an early partner in these accords.
Meanwhile, there is no falling behind for Asian contenders - China and India.
China became the first country to land on the far side of the moon last year, which put the Asian giant in the race to catch up with Russia and the United States in becoming a major space power by 2030.As countries increasingly treat space as a new military domain, the US-led agreement is also emblematic of Nasa's growing role as a tool of American diplomacy and is expected to stoke controversy among Washington's space rivals such as China.
"Nasa's all about science and technology and discovery, which are critically important, but I think less salient is the idea that Nasa is a tool of diplomacy," Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
The United States enacted a law in 2015 granting companies the property rights to resources they mine in outer space, but no such laws exist in the international community.
Meanwhile, India's ambitious moon mission faced a setback last year as it lost contact with the ground station just before it soft-landed on the South Pole.
With no activity in the Space, even tiny European nation Luxembourg is also swamped with registered companies hoping to explore the Space.
While Space looks set to be the next contested grounds, concerns are there that the potential quadrillions of dollars' business will lead to weaponisation of outer space, in the absence of appropriate regulatory framework.
"Mining rights, ownership, regulation, and global accords are key elements that need to be determined immediately in order to avert future conflict," wrote Jayshree Pandya, chief executive officer of Risk Group.
The 1968 UN Conference on Exploration and Peaceful Uses of the Outer Space set some guidelines for space missions, a year before the first manned mission of the US landed on the Moon.
Russia, the then USSR, had its Moon mission even earlier, when its Luna-2 was the first human-made object to touch the satellite in 1959.
Another instrument worked out in 1967 was the Outer Space Treaty (OST), a Cold War-era accord signed by 105 countries limiting military development in space.
But such instruments are not enough as outer-space innovations are driving private-sector entities crazy about getting access to extraterrestrial resources like hydrogen, carbon, silicone, metals, and other critical materials.
The OST overlooks the issue of ownership of space resources and some countries are framing laws for themselves.
The US approved the world's first space mining law in 2015 and Luxembourg got one in 2016.
The law opened a floodgate of investment to Luxembourg, a tax haven of many global corporates and mega-rich individuals. Its Space industry accounts for some 1.8% of its GDP, which is the highest in the EU.
With its legal framework that addresses the ownership of space resources, it takes the lead in this new gold rush for the riches of Space.
Some of the global giants, and even lesser-known companies, are hoping to make a fortune out of Space. Though a small country, Luxembourg, for its forward-looking regime, entered the space resources race in 2016, attracting even US's largest companies in the field. Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are among them.
There are now 10 space-mining companies registered in Luxembourg.
"Since February 2016, we interacted with almost 200 companies that have contacted us," says Paul Zenners, a representative of Luxembourg's ministry of economy.
Space-mining companies are brandishing overambitious launch schedules as a new space race gathers pace. Chance of life beyond earth lies much closer than expected.
Between the moon and an estimated 16,000 near-Earth asteroids, the resources available could be rich enough to produce the world's first trillionaire, some experts – including renowned astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson - say.
In 2017, a feasibility study done by USGS research geologist Laszlo Kestay found that near-earth asteroids, including moon and Mars, contain water and metal resources which are "immense when compared to current needs…and could sustain a million-fold increase in human activity in space for a million years."
Apart from profitable mineral and gaseous resources, the moon has traces of life-sustaining lunar water, which is a must for space activities. "If we find water resources on the moon, we can develop a whole new resource industry in space," says Takeshi Hakamada, CEO of ispace, a Tokyo-based private exploration company.
Nasa scientists believe moon colonies, which will provide a blueprint to Mars, could become a reality in the next four years. The US space agency plans to have people on Mars by mid-2030.
Dr Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, said the moon is full of resources like water ice and Helium-3, which could assist in making Mars - and even the moon itself - more habitable for humans.
Preparations are on for human resource development in the field. Colorado School of Mines has been a leading institution for the study of space resources since the 1990s. It has also become a destination for space scientists and aerospace companies.
As the race for space resources has sped up, concerns are growing about legal implications. In a research paper of the Observer Research Foundation, Senjuti Mallick and Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan appreciated the effort for economic benefits, but argued against the national legislations legalising extraterrestrial appropriation of resources. The concept of "common heritage of mankind" is defeated in the light of such legal frameworks, they felt.
While a methodology for assessing space resources is yet to be developed, space mining technology and policies for this new frontier remain as key questions.
The legal implications of setting up a moon base
Humans must abide by certain laws of the land they reside in. In fact, some laws are universal, and many versions of those can be found all over our blue planet. But would these laws apply outside the planet? Specifically, would these be applicable if humans managed to establish a base on the Moon?
Plans to go back to the Moon is already on the cards. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to land the first woman – and the next man – on the lunar surface by 2024. The applications are open from 2 to 31 March this year, and the reality of setting up a human base on the natural satellite suddenly does not seem too far-fetched.
Why do space-faring nations suddenly want to go back to the Moon? Aside from political muscle-flexing, there is also the intent of mining the moon for rare minerals, as well as setting it up as a base for future expedition to the red planet.
There are many technicalities to consider. Landing a spaceship on the Moon is hard. Even if we manage to push past that hurdle and actually get people on the natural satellite, erecting a base, we will also need to consider the cost, which may as well be astronomical.
The effect of a prolonged stay on the moon can have adverse effects on the astronaut's body. A greenhouse will need to be set up to supply food, and 3-D printers to actually build a base.While the task of hammering out these details is making the scientists sweat, some people are wondering about the laws that will prevail on the lunar base.
Not many people know about the "Space Law". According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which is tasked with promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space, this law is the "body of law applicable to and governing space-related activities."
The organization states that the "primary goals of the law is to ensure a rational, responsible approach to the exploration and use of outer space for the benefit and interests of all humankind."
And space law "addresses a variety of diverse matters such as ... [the] preservation of the space and Earth environment, liability for damages caused by space objects, settlement of disputes, protection of national interests, the rescue of astronauts, sharing of information about potential dangers in outer space, use of space-related technologies, and international cooperation."
There are five international treaties and agreements that govern activities in space, although these treaties are only legally binding for those member states that have signed and ratified them.
The most important of these is the "Outer Space Treaty". Since going into effect in October 1967, 103 countries have signed the treaty, including the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
Among other things, parties to the treaty agree to keep space a peaceful, non-militaristic zone, not to send nuclear weapons into orbit around the Earth or on celestial bodies.
The treaty expressly prohibits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies for the "establishment of military bases, installations, and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers."
There is also the "Rescue Agreement", which went into effect in December 1968, and it deals with the steps needed to be taken in case an astronaut in distress needs assistance or rescue. The "Liability Convention" deals with the damage caused by space objects on the surface of Earth or to aircraft. The "Registration Convention", as the name suggests, deals with the registration of space objects.
The "Moon Treaty" is on focus now. It explains how the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty would apply to the moon and other celestial bodies in the solar system. The ones other than Earth, at least.
In an effort to prevent the moon from becoming an area of conflict, the treaty requires that all exploration be exclusively for peaceful purposes. In essence, the space law allows peaceful exploration of the moon.
Mining the lunar body
Countries can use two different ways for moon mining. Countries such as the United States and Luxembourg (as the gateway to the European Union) agree that the moon and asteroids are "global commons," meaning they allow its private entrepreneurs, as long as duly licensed and in compliance with other relevant rules of space law, to go out there and extract what they can, to try and make money with it.
Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are two US based companies who are hoping to perform asteroid mining, which could also bring moon mining to light. However, in 2015, the United States passed the US Commercial Space Launch
Competitiveness Act, which in a nutshell allows US citizens to exploit asteroids and other space resources, but not the land on which the resources sit. While this makes resource hunting legal for US citizens, some experts have said this could violate the Outer Space Treaty.Some countries such as Russia and somewhat less explicitly Brazil and Belgium hold that the moon and asteroids belong to humanity as a whole. And therefore the potential benefits from commercial exploitation should somehow accrue for humanity- or at least should be subjected to a presumably rigorous international regime to guarantee humanity-wide benefits.
However, the laws of mining the moon are still mostly unclear. As the interest in the moon has been renewed in recent times - China, India, and Japan have serious plans to go back there along with the other space-faring countries. While ultimately it is up to the community of states to determine whether common agreement can be reached on either of the two positions or maybe somewhere in between, it is of crucial importance that agreement can be reached one way or another.
Experts fear such activities developing without any law that is generally applicable and accepted would be a worst-case scenario. While not a matter of colonisation anymore, it may have all the same harmful results.
Apollo 11 guidance system: The 4KB computer that took us to moon
Imagine using a calculator to perform your daily tasks instead of a smartphone. Sounds ridiculous right? Now imagine, using that same calculator and guiding a spacecraft to the moon? You cannot even imagine that, can you?
But, that is almost a fact. Do you know Apollo 11 had a computer onboard called the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), which was at par with modern calculators in terms of computing powers?
Apollo 11 was the 1969 spaceflight that first landed humans on the moon. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin formed the American crew that landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on July 20, 1969.
According to experts, without the AGC, there would be no moon landing, no "giant leap for mankind", and no winning the "space race".
The AGC at that time was the pinnacle of human inventions. It was the marvel of NASA engineering and without the AGC a human pilot would never have made it to the moon.
In the early years of computers there used to be vacuum tubes instead of transistors. As a result, one computer usually took up a whole room or at times whole floors to set-up. The AGC was miniature in comparison. It weighed only (!) 70 pounds. For that time it was revolutionary.
MIT aerospace and computing historian David Mindell once joked that the Apollo 11 computers started "The transition between people bragging about how big their computers are … and bragging about how small their computers are".
From then computers have improved at a geometric rate. Now, a handheld device can store more data than the engineers of the previous decade could ever think possible.
American Physicist Michio Kaku puts it simply,
"Today, your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969, when it placed two astronauts on the moon. Video games, which consume enormous amounts of computer power to simulate 3-D situations, use more computer power than mainframe computers of the previous decade. The Sony PlayStation of today, which costs $300, has the power of a military supercomputer of 1997, which cost millions of dollars."
But, how simple was the AGC? Let's put that into some perspective. The processor that the AGC used had a calculating speed of 0.043MHz. Meanwhile, the average clock speed for a modern processor of a smartphone is 1.8GHz, which is almost 40, 000 times higher than the one used in AGC.
The Random Access Memory (RAM) of AGC had a capacity of 2048 words. Each word takes up 16 binary digits (bits). So roughly the Apollo 11 computer had 4 kilobytes of RAM (4.096KB).
A modern-day smartphone generally has 4 GB of RAM, or 34,359,738,368 bits if we deconstruct that to Apollo 11 scale. The math says a typical 2020 smartphone had almost a million times (1,048,576 to be exact) more RAM power than the module which landed the first human to the moon.
In storage capacity, Apollo 11 had 74KB Read-Only Memory (ROM), which comprises 589,824 bits. A smartphone typically nowadays has a storage capacity of 128GB or more.
The Apollo Guidance computer system had two basic jobs. First, it computed the course to the moon, calculated by the data that was provided by astronomical measurements. Second, it controlled about 150 mechanical components of the spacecraft.
The MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which designed AGC took the concept from their earlier work of the Polaris guided-missile system, made to launch nuclear warheads from US submarines.
The difficulty with AGC was that it required a user interface as multiple operations had to run at the same time. Apollo astronauts and NASA engineers had to know what was going on and had to make decisions. During the 60's and even in the early 70's programmers used punch card to program a machine. That is why the Apollo operating system required a new kind of software.
Margaret Hamilton, a female programmer, led the male-dominated Apollo software team. Her team had 350 people at its peak. The system they came up with, was remarkably advanced considering the time.
To maximize the machine architecture, Hamilton and her team came up with a scheme called "The Interpreter". In modern times it can be deemed as "virtualization". It allowed the AGC to run five to seven virtual machines simultaneously in two kilobytes of memory. It was very slow, but at least everything was run by software.
The astronauts used the computer through DSKY (pronounced Dis-kee), short for "display and keyboard". The astronauts had to punch in numbers to get responses and the machine relied on a series of program codes, as well as "verb" and "noun" codes.
Verbs were things the computer could do ("78 UPDATE PRE LAUNCH AZIMUTH"). Nouns were numerical quantities or measurements ("33 TIME OF IGNITION"). It was a long way from point-and-click simplicity.
Most of the system's memory had been woven, but some could be written, both by the astronauts and remotely from Mission Control. This turned out to be a saving grace for the mission. As the module gravitated towards the lunar surface one of its radars began to send bad data. AGC recognized the problem but it stayed functional throughout the descent. It saved the mission by dumping bad information and continued with more important tasks.
The malfunction is etched in Apollo history and it holds that the computer had problems and Neil Armstrong took manual control and landed the spacecraft to the surface.
This incident stamped the lunar landing's success as a human triumph. This was the first time that humankind was able to travel to an extraterrestrial body. With this, almost a decade long space race came to an end, and the US was the winners by a quite a margin over its more technologically advanced counterpart the USSR.