Legally Reaching For The Moon: Artemis Accords and Should India Sign It

  • Subha Chugh
  • 03:28 PM, 18 Jun 2021

‘After October 13, 2020, any State seeking to become a Signatory to these Accords may submit its signature to the Government of the United States for addition to this text’

With all that is going on in the world, it seems like Jeff Bezos and his brother have the right idea: it is time to jump ship and seek solace somewhere else in the universe. Whether or not it is mankind that is the plague, fated to bring ill along with it; and whether we are even technologically equipped enough, might be philosophical and scientific propositions to delve upon. However, the practical aspects of space exploration leaves gaping holes when looked at from the legal perspective.

Who owns space?

The very first problem with space laws is the fact that the word ‘space’ lacks a proper definition. Where does space begin and what does it encompass? Does it include celestial bodies? If so, which ones? Does it include man – made satellites? When so much of the universe and its resources is unexplored, how can we even begin to confine it by a definition?

Nevertheless, there have been several international treaties with respect to space laws. The Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space adopted by the United Nations in 1963 says ‘Outer space and celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means’, which basically means that no one nation can claim ownership of any part of space or celestial body. Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies of 1967 also called the Outer Space Treaty, has been ratified by sixty-three countries, including India, giving it more weight and making it the basis for space laws, however, the treaty, though prohibits the placement of WMDs in space and establishment of military bases and testing, does not ban military activities or weaponization of space or its resources. It also offers limited and ambiguous regulations to space activities such as lunar and asteroid mining.  

 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, a follow up to the Outer Space Treaty, and also known as the Moon Treaty, adopted in 1979 sought to lay down a better legal framework and contains similar objectives with respect to the moon, stating that no nation has sovereignty over the moon and that the moon and other celestial bodies should be kept in pristine condition for the benefit of all mankind.

The problem is, such principles of international law hold as much weight as a tired parent forbidding their hungry three-year-old from eating chocolate while a delicious bar sits within her grasp. Infact, the Moon Treaty has been ratified by merely six countries, none of which have ever even had any plans to explore space. (India become a signatory on 18th January 1982).

This basically means that from the US’ Apollo 11 in 1969 to India’s Chandrayaan-2 in 2019 and China’s Chang'e 5 in 2020, missions to the moon have been at the mercy of the launch nations’ domestic laws and consciousness.

Artemis Accords

Also a follow up to The Outer Space Treaty, the Artemis Accords seek to do what others failed, bring countries together to work towards deepening Space Exploration.

The Artemis Accords are an international agreement between governments participating in the Artemis Program, which is a US led international human spaceflight program, launched in 2017, and with a mission to ‘land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024, heralding in a new era for space exploration and utilization.’

On 6th May 2020, Reuters reported that the Trump Administration was drafting a new international agreement for mining on the Moon and ten days later the then NASA Administrator officially announced the accorders.

The twelve-page Accords require the nations to, among other responsibilities:

  • Make sure the missions serve a peaceful purpose only;
  • Be transparent in their plans and policies for space exploration;
  • Strive for interoperability of space systems;
  • Provide emergency assistance in space as and when required;
  • Register Space objects and join the Registration Convention;
  • Release any and all scientific data;
  • Ensure protection of heritage sites and artefacts on the moon;
  • Mitigate space debris and ensure minimal waste generation;

While the accords still rely on multilateral ties and a mutual understanding and adherence, and are, in essence, non-binding, on top of not applying to foreign space activities conducted outside the Artemis Program they have been understood to codify key principles and guidelines for exploring space in general. Operational applications like the commitment to deconflict lunar activities through safety zones can generate state practice and create precedent that gives international space law more focus and clarity.

Should India Sign The Accords?

On 13th October 2020, in a livestream the Accords were signed by the directors of the national space agencies of the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates, with Ukraine, South Korea and New Zealand following suit and Brazil expected to join later in 2021.

The Artemis Accords have generally been lauded for being an agreement that will inspire uniform standards of cooperation and exploration. Further, with this agreement, the US has used existing governance regimes rather than pursuing a revision of old treaties or negotiating new agreements, though the fact that they were drafted primarily by NASA in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State and the newly re-established National Space Council and that they are for a US led mission does speak to US hegemony over the whole matter and space laws at large. If history is any evidence, US’ dominance, as benevolently hidden as it might be, finds its way out eventually, often at the cost of other ‘expendable’ nations. Concern has been expressed over the fact that the treaty makes the US a licensing nation for commercial space companies and in turn a ‘gatekeeper’ to the moon and other celestial bodies. Russia has already called the accords “Too US- centric” and eventually went on to participate in the Chinese Programme. (China has proposed its own version of a permanent lunar base.)

While the Outer Space Treaty establishes that no one can lay claim to the other worlds, NASA has made it clear that countries and companies can own and use resources that are derived from the Moon. This has incited objections against the motives behind the accord and their potential consequences.  

It is also worth noting that both Germany and France, each with their own well developed Space programmes have so far not joined the accords.

The only regulatory framework governing the space industry in India is determined by the Satellite Communication Policy, 1997, the revised Remote Sensing Data Policy, 2011, the Technology Transfer Policy of ISRO, in addition to the setting up of a new organisation called Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) which is yet to be established. The existing laws deal with dissemination of data and regulating satellite use but make no mention of actual space exploration or the use of celestial resources or even intellectual property rights, thus becoming a part of an international bid for space exploration can be good for India and its mission to be a super power, which severely lacks in any codified space law.

Though India has, traditionally enjoyed more goodwill with Russia, there has been a recent shift in US – India ties towards the positive. Moreover, India’s frequent border tussle with China might make it non conducive for it to join the Chinese program (though there have been collaborations between India and China with respect to space exploration).

At the end of the day space might prove to be that thread that unifies all of mankind, to look past borders and strive towards something better, or it might just be a rat – race, every man for his own, with the privileged conveniently booking first class tickets to Elysium, and the lesser so left behind.