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Back to the Moon: A Space Advocate and Planetary Scientist on What It Takes to Share the Benefits of New Moon Exploration – podcast


NASA plans to return US astronauts on the surface of the moon by the end of 2024. This mission is just the beginning of what will be a few historic decades in space exploration, as both The United States and China have plans to establish a permanent human presence on the moon.

The first question you may have is: why now?

The short answer is the relatively recent discovery of water on the moon. But the deeper and perhaps more important questions have to do with how competing space agencies will pull off this feat given the limited resources on Earth’s satellite.

In this episode of The Conversation Weekly, we talk to two people: a planetary scientist who studies the geology of the moon, and a space lawyer who studies space policy and geopolitics – about the challenges nations face as humanity seeks to settle on the moon.

When Apollo astronauts returned the first moon rocks in the late 1960s and early 1970s, scientists were disappointed to find no sign of water or anything of much use in the samples. The moon appeared to be a bald spot.

Fast forward a few decades and two coinciding events have reshaped the moon’s future: the sudden boom in the private space sector and the discovery of water frozen in permanently shadowed craters on the lunar surface. Suddenly setting up a base on the moon was not only desirable, but also feasible.

Research has found evidence of water, in the form of ice and shown in blue, frozen in craters around the moon’s poles.

“If you want to explore space with humans, water becomes one of the most critical resources,” explained Mahesh Anand, a professor of planetary science and exploration at the UK’s Open University. “We need water to survive, but water can also be broken down into its individual components, such as oxygen, which we need to breathe.” But there are many other resources on the moon, and as Anand explains, “Water is where the story begins, but it doesn’t end there. Using resources in situ – where you are – that’s what actually opens up the realm of lunar exploration.”

The US Artemis program, which first launched in 2022, is the beginning of a plan to eventually build a base on the moon’s surface, as well as a space station orbiting it. The US and its collaborators are not alone in these lunar ambitions – China, too, has plans to establish a permanent presence on the moon before 2030. And both groups explicitly intend to use lunar resources to achieve these goals.

How this all works legally is an open question currently being debated on international venues like the United Nations, but there are already some similarities on the books.

“It’s nice to think of space as the Wild West without rules. But that is not it. We have the Outer Space Treaty,” explains Michelle Hanlon, a law professor at the University of Mississippi in the US. This treaty has been signed by most nations and provides an almost utopian framework for how nations are supposed to behave in space. “The main provisions of the Outer Space Treaty say that outer space is for everyone,” Hanlon continues. “No one can claim any territory in space. It is free for all to explore and use, and the moon and all celestial bodies will be used for peaceful purposes only.”

The lofty ideals of space law are moving rapidly toward colliding with the reality of humanity expanding beyond Earth — bringing with it all of our geopolitical and conflicting interests. Listen to the full episode to see how nations deal with the big scientific, legal and moral issues of a lunar future.

This episode was hosted by Dan Merino, written by Katie Flood and co-produced by Dan Merino and Katie Flood. The executive producer is Mend Mariwany. Eloise Stevens does our sound design and our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audioon Instagram at theconversationdotcom or by email. You can also subscribe to The Conversation’s free daily email here. A transcript of this episode will be available shortly.

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