The New Zealand government announced May 31 that it had signed the U.S.-led Artemis Accords governing best practices for space exploration activities, showing a particular interest in the document’s stance on space resources.
Peter Crabtree, head of the New Zealand Space agency, signed the accords in a ceremony in Wellington, New Zealand, making the country the 11th to join the accords, less than a week after South Korea joined.
The accords, unveiled in October and initially signed by eight countries, including the United States, outline a set of principles for safe and sustainable space exploration activities, from transparency and interoperability to the exchange of scientific data and mitigation of orbital debris. Many of those principles are linked to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and other international agreements.
“New Zealand’s participation in the Artemis Accords is an historic moment for our nation and our highly-regarded local space industry,” Stuart Nash, economic development minister, said in a government statement. “The Artemis Accords enable us to prepare for future economic and trade opportunities as well as meeting foreign policy objectives.”
The New Zealand government did not outline specific plans to participate in the NASA-led Artemis program of lunar exploration. Nash said in the statement that signing the accords “facilitates participation in the Artemis program by New Zealand and our space sector companies.”
That New Zealand space sector is best known for Rocket Lab, a company that has developed the Electron small launch vehicle and Photon satellite bus and announced plans earlier this year to develop a medium-class launcher called Neutron. Rocket Lab, however, is headquartered in the United States and is already participating in the Artemis program through a contract awarded last year for the launch of a cubesat mission called CAPSTONE that will demonstrate the stability of the near-rectilinear halo orbit that will be used by the lunar Gateway. CAPSTONE is scheduled to launch later this year on an Electron rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia.
“We look forward to continuing the warm dialogue between our nations, as it’s been historically, and to identifying and expanding opportunities for cooperation in space: in exploration, in science, in STEM education and more,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a video statement about New Zealand’s accession to the accords.
The New Zealand government, which participated in the original drafting of the Artemis Accords last year, expressed an interest in its statement in expanding upon one of its provisions regarding the use of space resources. The accords endorse the utilization of space resources for “safe and sustainable operations” in space, and state that doing so does not constitute “national appropriation,” which is prohibited under the Outer Space Treaty.
“While existing international law provides high level rules around the utilization of resources, we see a need for additional rules or standards to ensure the conservation and long-term sustainability of these resources,” Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand foreign minister, said in the statement. “The Artemis Accords are an important first step in that regard.”
Signatories of the Artemis Accords have widely varying views on space resource rights. In the United States, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015 grants American companies rights to space resources that they extract. Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates, two other signatories, have similar national laws. Australia, by contrast, is one of a handful of countries that has ratified the Moon Agreement of 1979, which declares the moon and its resources the “common heritage of mankind” and requires an “equitable sharing” of the benefits of those resources among all nations.
The issue of space resource rights may come up again at the United Nations as part of the two-week meeting of the legal subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which started May 31.
In a May 27 paper submitted to COPUOS, seven European countries — Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Slovakia and Spain — proposed that COPUOS establish a working group on space resources. “The objective is to ensure that space resources activities are conducted in a safe, sustainable and peaceful manner, for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and in accordance with international law,” the paper stated.
The goals of the working group, the paper stated, are to recommend “principles and practical measures” for countries engaged in the utilization of space resources and to assess whether a more formal international agreement is needed. The paper offers a five-year plan for achieving those goals.
The United States and several other countries that have signed the Artemis Accords plan to discuss the agreement in a special side event of the COPUOS legal subcommittee meeting June 2.
Russia and China are looking to announce new partnerships for a joint initiative to construct a robotic moon base ahead of potential crewed lunar missions.
The first responses to invitations to join the International Lunar Research Station project (ILRS) are expected during bilateral meetings during the Global Space Exploration Conference 2021 (GLEX 2021) in St. Petersburg, Russia, running from June 14-18.
“We have sent out invitations for cooperation in the international scientific lunar station to a number of our respected partners, including the European Space Agency, for example,” Roscosmos Deputy Head for International Cooperation Sergei told TASS last week.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) and Russia’s Roscosmos sent invitations to potential partners in early April.
China and Russia are seeking international ILRS partners at the same time as the United States is building partnerships with countries through its Artemis Accords. South Korea became the 10th signatory of Accords May 27, and the first to sign up under the Biden Administration.
Roscosmos and CNSA will present a roadmap for creating the ILRS at a GLEX 2021 event June 16. Beijing and Moscow earlier stated that the ILRS project would be open to participation at all stages and levels. Russia and China signed a memorandum of understanding on the ILRS in March.
Early details suggest that missions for the ILRS first phase will include China’s Chang’e-6 (sample return) and Chang’e-7 (orbiter, lander, rover, small surface probe) and Russia’s Luna 25 (lander), Luna 26 (polar orbiter) and Luna 27 (lander) missions.
A second phase will run from 2026-2030. Chang’e-8, designed for in-situ resource utilization and 3D-printing technology tests, and Luna 28, will set down at a chosen site and mark the beginning of construction of the robotic base.
A third phase would consist of multiple missions across 2030-2035. By this time China hopes to test launch its Long March 9 super heavy-lift launcher for infrastructure. The country is also developing a new-generation launcher for crewed missions and a new crewed spacecraft with deep space capabilities.
Early Chinese visions of the ILRS outlined long-term robotic and potentially short-term crewed missions for this timeframe. A long-term human presence at the lunar south pole is the goal for 2036-2045.
Recent reports suggest that Russia and China will share spaceflight technologies for the ILRS project.
“Both sides have agreed to incorporate Russia’s superheavy rocket with China’s human space flight as well as the other way round – incorporate China’s superheavy rocket with Russia’s manned carriers,” Alexander Bloshenko, Roscosmos’ executive director for long-term programs and science, told media, according to the the South China Morning Post.
The Roscosmos Press Office told SpaceNews that they cannot comment on the matter.
The GLEX 2021 conference was to be held in 2020 but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The previous edition of the GLEX conference, organized by the International Astronautical Federation, was hosted by Beijing.