Insight - Lunar Space Cooperation Initiatives

Thursday, February 8, 2024

We are currently seeing a global resurgence in interest and activities on the Moon, featuring governmental and commercial missions from a wide range of actors. This includes two major initiatives for returning people to the Moon and maintaining a sustained presence there: the Artemis program, led by the United States, and the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), which is jointly led by China and Russia. Both initiatives focus on their scientific objectives and dedication to the peaceful exploration of space for the benefit of all humanity.

The United States has also led the development of the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for the lunar activities that will take place within the Artemis program. China and Russia have indicated ILRS also includes the development of legal principles, although few public details are known. This has led to a significant amount of confusion over the relationship between these programs and their associated principles and their potential impact on space governance. All of this is further exacerbated by the current geopolitical tensions between the major space powers.

To help clarify these issues, Secure World Foundation has created a new page on our website that provides an overview of the relationship between the Artemis program, the Artemis Accords, and the ILRS program. We have also developed a publicly available spreadsheet that tracks the countries that have publicly joined the Artemis Accords and ILRS. 

One of the biggest areas of confusion is the relationship between the Artemis Accords and the Artemis program of missions. The Artemis program is a NASA-led initiative to return to the Moon and establish a permanent human presence there that will lay the foundation for further exploration to Mars and beyond. As many of the activities planned within the Artemis program are new, the Artemis Accords were developed as a set of principles for how the activities within the Artemis program will be conducted in accordance with the existing body of international space law.

The Artemis Accords are a multilateral document in that they were developed jointly by the original eight countries that signed on to them, and each additional signatory has signed on to the same document. The Accords are not a formal legal treaty, and according to the signatories, they do not circumvent or replace existing treaties such as the Outer Space Treaty. Instead, they describe the Accords as a political commitment of how to interpret and apply the existing treaties to future lunar activities. 

Joining the Artemis program involves signing a separate bilateral agreement with NASA that outlines the contributions an Artemis partner will make and the benefits they will get in return. For example, while the United Arab Emirates was a founding signatory to the Artemis Accords, it wasn't until January 2024 that NASA and the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) announced they had signed an implementing agreement for the UAE to provide the Artemis Lunar Gateway Airlock. Similarly, Japan, another founding signatory of the Accords, is still negotiating the full extent of its bilateral agreement with the United States on its participation in the Artemis program. 

In a similar fashion, ILRS consists of both a lunar exploration program and a set of principles for activities undertaken as part of that program. China and Russia have jointly released details about the scientific objectives of ILRS and the main phases of the project and have also established a Joint Working Group along with an International Lunar Research Station Cooperation Organization (ILRSCO) in which additional partners can participate. 

One of the biggest concerns often expressed about these two initiatives is that they will lead to disagreement and potential conflict, in particular over the interpretation of key legal principles such as the use of space resources. While this is a possible outcome that all parties should be working to avoid, it is worth noting that at this point in time, it appears both Artemis and ILRS  share similar interpretations of international law. The reason is that both programs propose to do very similar activities creating permanent installations, extraction and use of lunar water and mineral resources, and manufacturing on the lunar surface. That said, there is still a significant amount of confusion over how the principles of either program will be applied to their activities and also areas where both sets of countries need to deconflict their proposed activities

Another concern is that these initiatives, and the Artemis Accords in particular, are an attempt to circumvent the existing United Nations fora for international dialogue on space cooperation. Yet working with a smaller group of States is hardly unique to Artemis or ILRS: the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the partners in the International Space Station (ISS) program was also negotiated outside the United Nations and is a binding treaty on those countries (unlike the Accords). Similarly, the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), headquartered in Beijing and led by China, has a formal treaty instrument between its members. Many other cooperative space programs have also been negotiated in similar ways and are not seen as efforts to supplant the United Nations’ role in promoting international space cooperation. 

Some critics have also argued that the Artemis Accords are an attempt by the United States to change international law on the extraction and use of space resources. According to the States who have signed on to the Accords, they do not rewrite international law - they are an expression of how the signatories view interpretation of the existing law. Mike Gold, who led the initial development of the Artemis Accords NASA, has stated that the Artemis Accords were not intended to conflict with the Moon Agreement, and Australia, which is a signatory to both the Artemis Accords and the Moon Agreement, has stated that it does not believe the two documents conflict. 

While it would have been ideal for the world to unite behind a single global lunar exploration initiative, multiple lunar initiatives are not a guaranteed path to conflict. There is an inherent interest of all parties that any future lunar activities be done in a peaceful, cooperative, and sustainable manner. Participants in both the Artemis program and the ILRS program should continue to share updates on their respective activities and the global community, and eventually, there may need to be consultations on how to deconflict their respective lunar activities. Additionally, all countries should continue to engage in dialogue within the United Nations on how the existing international legal principles will apply to those activities on the Moon.

Last updated on February 8, 2024