U.S. and other nations sign Artemis Accords for moon missions

Artemis moon mission
An artist’s conception shows surface operations on the moon. (NASA Illustration)

Seven nations have signed up with the United States to participate in NASA’s Artemis effort to put astronauts on the moon by as early as 2024.

The Artemis Accords commit the signatories — including Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, Italy, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates as well as the U.S. — to observe a set of principles ranging from the interoperability of space hardware to the protection of heritage sites and space property rights.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other international representatives announced the signing of the accords today in conjunction with this week’s International Astronautical Congress.

During a briefing with reporters, Bridenstine said the accords will serve as the “preamble of bilateral agreements between the United States and all of our international partners as we go sustainably to the moon with commercial and international partners.”

It’ll be up to each nation to ensure that commercial partners under its jurisdiction — such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, for example — observe the requirements of the Artemis Accords. Just today, Blue Origin tested a guidance system that NASA aims to use on future lunar landers.

The signers of the accords will also be required to register the objects they’re sending into space and provide public notification about the location and nature of their operations, under a provision known as due regard.

If signatories don’t adhere to the accords and the follow-up bilateral agreements, they could be asked to leave the Artemis coalition, Bridenstine said. “There’s a lot of pressure that can be brought to bear,” he said, without going into specifics on the enforcement process.

Bridenstine described the agreement as a way to “operationalize” the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which governs international activities in space.

“The Outer Space Treaty is over 50 years old, but it doesn’t look a day over 35,” he joked today in a NASA webcast as the signings were announced. “The accords both reinforce and implement the obligations of the Outer Space Treaty. For the first time, we are establishing consequences for Outer Space Treaty compliance.”

The Artemis Accords don’t have the status associated with treaties — and they don’t require Senate ratification, as treaties do. Bridenstine explained that NASA made use of bilateral agreements with individual nations to accelerate the process of preparing for the first Artemis astronauts to land on the lunar surface in 2024.

“We have a mandate to go quickly, and at the same time bring on international and commercial partners,” he told GeekWire. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The agreements relating to moon landings are separate from the multilateral agreement that governs operations on the International Space Station — as well as a similar agreement that applies to the Gateway, a NASA-led project to build an outpost in lunar orbit.

Megan Clark, head of the Australian Space Agency, was part of a retinue of space officials who affirmed their governments’ support for the Artemis Accords today. “We’re so proud that our agency, just two years old, can stand should to shoulder with NASA and our counterparts from across the globe,” Clark said.

So far, the signatories don’t include two of the world’s most influential spacefaring nations: Russia and China.

Bridenstine said that more nations would be joining the Artemis coalition, but it’s not yet clear whether Russia will be among them. At an earlier IAC session this week, Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin complained that the lunar Gateway project is “too U.S.-centric,” even though it would be guided by a multilateral agreement rather than a series of bilateral agreements.

“Russia is likely to refrain from participating in it on a large scale,” Rogozin said. He added that he’d consider changing his view if the decision-making process for the Gateway put more emphasis on international cooperation.

In response, Bridenstine issued a statement saying that Gateway agreement would follow the model set by operations on the International Space Station, and that he remained “open and interested” in receiving feedback from the Russians.

China is a special case, because NASA officials are currently barred from conducting bilateral talks with their Chinese counterparts due to national security concerns.

“NASA, as an agency, always follows the law, and the law right now prohibits us from engaging China on bilateral activities,” Bridenstine told reporters. “If China’s behavior were to be modified in a way that Congress, Republicans and Democrats, come together and say, ‘Look, we want to engage China,’ NASA stands ready.”

The text of the Artemis Accords suggests they could apply to celestial destinations beyond the moon, including Mars, comets and asteroids. Mike Gold, NASA’s acting associate administrator for the Office of International and Interagency Relations, said those farther-out space odysseys would have to be addressed more fully in future agreements that build on the foundation of the accords.

“Regardless of where you go in the solar system, we still think they’re very applicable,” Gold said. “But again, we’re modest enough to know, like the U.S. Constitution in many ways, that changes will need to be made. We’ll learn from our experiences, and we look forward to having those problems. They’re good issues to have.”

The 10 principles of the Artemis Accords:

  • Peaceful purposes: All activities will be conducted for peaceful purposes in accordance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
  • Transparency: Partner nations will conduct their activities in a transparent fashion to avoid confusion and conflicts.
  • Interoperability: Partner nations will strive to support interoperable systems to enhance safety and sustainability.
  • Emergency assistance: Partner nations commit to rendering assistance to personnel in distress.
  • Registration of space objects: Partner nations should adhere to the Registration Convention on identifying their space objects.
  • Release of scientific data: Partner nations commit to the public release of scientific information.
  • Preserving heritage: Partner nations commit to preserving sites and artifacts on the moon that have historical value.
  • Space resources: Extracting and utilizing space resources is key to safe and sustainable exploration, and signatories affirm that such activities should be conducted in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty.
  • Deconfliction of activities: Partner nations commit to preventing harmful interference and supporting the principle of due regard, as required by the Outer Space Treaty.
  • Orbital debris and spacecraft disposal: Partner nations commit to planning for the safe disposal of space debris.

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