NASA’s ‘Artemis Accords’ set forth new and old rules for outer space cooperation

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NASA’s plan to return to the Moon is ambitious enough on its own, but the agency is aiming to modernize international cooperation in space in the process. Today it published a summary of the “Artemis Accords,” a new set of voluntary guidelines that partner nations and organizations are invited to join to advance the cause of exploration and industry globally.

Having no national affiliation or sovereignty of its own, space is by definition lawless. So these are not so much space laws as shared priorities given reasonably solid form. Many nations already take part in a variety of agreements and treaties, but the progress of space exploration (and soon, colonization and mining, among other things) has outpaced much of that structure. A fresh coat of paint is overdue and NASA has decided to take up the brush.

The Artemis Accords both reiterate the importance of those old rules and conventions and introduce a handful of new ones. They are only described in general today, as the specifics will likely need to be hashed out in shared talks over months or years.

The NASA statement describing the rules and the reasoning behind each is short and obviously meant to be understood by a lay audience, so you can read through it here. But I’ve condensed the main points into bullets below for more streamlined consumption.

First, the rules that could be considered new. NASA and partner nations agree to:

  • Publicly describe policies and plans in a transparent manner.
  • Publicly provide location and general nature of operations to create “Safety Zones” and avoid conflicts.
  • Use international open standards, develop new such standards if necessary and support interoperability as far as is practical.
  • Release scientific data publicly in a full and timely manner.
  • Protect sites and artifacts with historic value. (For example, Apollo program landing sites, which have no real lawful protection.)
  • Plan for the mitigation of orbital debris, including safe and timely disposal of end-of-life spacecraft.

As you can imagine, each of these opens a new can of worms — what constitutes transparent? What operations must be disclosed, and under what timeline? Who determines what has “historic value”?

Anything arguable will be argued over for a long time, but setting some baseline expectations like “don’t be secretive,” or “don’t steal the Apollo 13 lander” is a great place to start the conversation.

Meanwhile, the Accords also reaffirm NASA’s commitment to existing treaties and guidelines. It and partners will:

  • Conduct all activities only for peaceful purposes, per the Outer Space Treaty.
  • Take all reasonable steps to render assistance to astronauts in distress, per the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts and other agreements.
  • Register objects sent into space, per the Registration Convention.
  • Perform space resource extraction and utilization according to the Outer Space Treaty Articles II, VI and XI.
  • Inform partner nations regarding “safety zones” and coordinate according to Outer Space Treaty Article IX.
  • Mitigate debris per guidelines set by U.N Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

The Artemis program aims to put the next American man and the first woman on the surface of the Moon in 2024, though that timeline is looking increasingly unlikely. The mission will lean on private launch providers and other commercial partners to an unprecedented degree in an effort to reduce costs and delays while maintaining the necessary levels of reliability and safety.