A new space race in the offing?

A new space race in the offing?

US has allowed citizens the right to engage in commercial exploration of space while other space-faring nations are showing greater interest in this area; India too needs to ensure its interests in this sector are secured

Representative image. (Credit: Pixabay Photo)

As the world is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and the United States is in a precarious situation, President Donald Trump has passed an executive order allowing Americans ‘the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space.’

All major spacefaring nations, including the United States of America and India, are signatories of the Outer Space Treaty, 1967. Article II of The Outer Space Treaty, 1967, states: ‘Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.’ The Moon Agreement 1979, although ratified by only 18 countries, the US not being one of them, also prohibits the exploration of the moon. The order highlights that US doesn’t consider space as ‘global commons’ and further states that the US is not a party to the 1979 Moon Agreement and doesn’t recognise the Agreement to ‘be an effective or necessary instrument to guide nation-states regarding the promotion of commercial participation in the long-term exploration, scientific discovery, and use of the Moon, Mars, or other celestial bodies.’

Commercial exploitation of space

While the legal opinion on the legitimacy of exploiting outer space by the US is divided, the intent of commercial exploration is not entirely new. Over the past couple of years, we are seeing increasing interest in asteroid mining and exploitation of space by nation-states. The US Congress had passed the ‘Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act’ in 2015 giving its citizens the right to ‘possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained.’ NASA’s Artemis Lunar Exploration programme plans to develop a base camp at the south pole of the moon and build other infrastructure to facilitate long-term exploration of the moon. Billionaire explorers like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, are also looking to reach Mars and other celestial bodies and take advantage of the resources found.

Luxembourg, a small European nation, has implemented an even more liberal regime than the US for asteroid mining and harvesting of other resources from space. Trump’s executive order is an endorsement of the growing global sentiment and formal recognition of the property rights of private players from the US.   

Russia has heavily criticised the US, and Trump for the order, stating, ‘attempts to expropriate outer space and aggressive plans to actually seize territories of other planets hardly set the countries (on course for) fruitful cooperation.’ However, we need to trust actions, not words when we observe sovereign nation-states in the international arena. 

Russia’s space agency Roscosmos has announced plans for a 2024 orbiter, a 2028 sample-return mission, and human flights by 2029-30. China has an ambitious lunar programme with its Chang’e missions. Russia and China are also planning to build a shared data centre for lunar and deep-sea research. It will be interesting to see whether all these missions are only towards the pursuit of science or are there other strategic and economic interests that the countries will undertake.

New strains in international order

Setting up bases and exploiting and trading resources found in space is also a way of asserting power in space. Most states now acknowledge space as a new domain of security, and thus are building capabilities to safeguard their interests and project power. While building defensive capabilities through specialised defence space agencies is one way, establishing economic avenues through the exploitation of resources and trade is the other way to gain primacy. 

The Outer Space Treaty, enacted in 1967, in the wake of the cold war and the height of the space race, has done well to prevent exploitation of space so far. As space exploration and travel is becoming cheaper, and there is increased participation from private players, we are likely to see new strains in the international order. We would observe an increased interest in property rights in space and countries trying to enable, if not encourage, their private players to harvest resources in space.  

The executive order says that the US is looking to negotiate multilateral agreements with foreign states for sustainable operations for the recovery of space resources. India needs to be cognizant of the developments in this new ‘space race’. While the Moon Agreement which India has signed but not ratified may prove to be a thorn, India must take prudent measures to ensure that its citizens can reap the economic dividends of space exploration while India can safeguard its strategic interests.

(Utkarsh Narain is a technology policy analyst at the Takshashila Institution)  

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.