Artemis Accords: A Step Toward International Cooperation or Further Competition?
On Oct. 13, the Artemis Accords Principles for a Safe, Peaceful, and Prosperous Future, commonly referred to as the Artemis Accords, were signed by their eight founding member states: Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. More recently, on Nov. 13, Ukraine joined as the ninth signatory. The unveiling of the accords—a series of agreements that provide a framework to maintain peace in outer space and govern behavior on the moon—has caused much excitement in the international community. But while they were drafted to serve as a tool for international cooperation, in the eyes of some space law and policy experts the accords could have the opposite effect, contributing to the escalation of competition and rivalry in space between the United States and its partners and allies, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other.
What Are the Artemis Accords?
The Artemis Accords are a set of nonbinding principles that seek to guide the conduct of states involved in the exploration of outer space in the context of—and with the intention of advancing—NASA’s Artemis Program to place the first woman and next man on the moon. The Artemis Program seeks to return humankind to the moon by 2024 to explore the lunar surface to a greater extent than ever before. NASA aims to collaborate with commercial partners, as well as with the international community, to achieve a sustainable lunar exploration by the end of this decade. The knowledge obtained through the Artemis missions will be used to send humans to Mars in the future. As an increasing number of actors are conducting missions and operations in cislunar space, NASA developed the Artemis Accords to serve as international guidelines to govern the exploration and use of space.
The text of the accords comprises 13 sections that highlight 10 principles to guide future space activities, particularly those relating to the exploration of the moon and other celestial bodies. These principles are outlined briefly in the sections that follow.
Section 3 – Peaceful Purposes
In accordance with the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies—also known as the Outer Space Treaty—the Artemis Accords affirm that activities carried out by their signatories should be “exclusively for peaceful purposes and in accordance with relevant international law.” The term “peaceful purposes” has been generally understood to mean nonaggressive, rather than nonmilitary. This view has traditionally been held by the United States and is reflected in the accords by the lack of an explicit prohibition of military activities on celestial bodies.
Section 4 – Transparency
The Artemis Accords aim to encourage signatory states to share their space policies as well as scientific information resulting from their activities pursuant to the accords, in an effort to promote international cooperation as per Article XI of the Outer Space Treaty, which establishes that state parties to the treaty are to inform the UN secretary-general, the public, and the international scientific community about the nature, conduct, locations and results of activities conducted in outer space.
Section 5 – Interoperability
This aspirational principle seeks to encourage states to use certain uniform standards—which the Artemis Accords themselves do not provide—that allow the utilization of interoperable technology to ensure efficiency. This is another measure that aims to promote international cooperation.
Section 6 – Emergency Assistance
The Artemis Accords echo the language of not just the Outer Space Treaty, and particularly Article V, but also the 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (known as the Rescue and Return Agreement), which in Article II stipulates that states must take all possible steps to rescue the personnel of a spacecraft and render all necessary assistance.
Section 7 – Registration of Space Objects
In line with Section 4, Section 7 of the Artemis Accords also encourages transparency, this time by encouraging signatory states to duly register their space objects in accordance with the process outlined in the 1976 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.
Section 8 – Release of Scientific Data
The sharing of scientific data is not expressly stipulated in international law. The Outer Space Treaty merely establishes in Article XI that states conducting space activities shall inform the international community “to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, of the nature, conduct, locations and results of such activities.” However, NASA’s long-standing policy has been to share a broader array of information that includes scientific data, hence, the willingness to encourage other signatories to do the same. This commitment does not apply to private-sector operations unless such operations are being conducted on behalf of a signatory state.
Section 9 – Preservation of Outer Space Heritage
The objective of this principle is to ensure the protection of historically significant human or robotic evidence of activity on celestial bodies, so that new missions to the surface of the moon or other celestial bodies do not adversely impact what remains of missions that took place in years past, such as the Apollo sites.
Section 10 – Space Resources
This controversial principle highlights that resource extraction and utilization can be done in a manner compliant with the Outer Space Treaty. Its contentious nature stems from the fact that the legality of space resource extraction activities is an issue that has not been universally accepted, since some countries believe that the extraction of resources would constitute a violation of the prohibition of appropriation established by Article II of the Outer Space Treaty.
The Artemis Accords follow the interpretative trend established by Title IV of the 2015 U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act and the April 6 Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources. The former establishes that U.S. companies are entitled to “possess, own, transport, use, and sell” space resources without it constituting a violation of international law. This position earned particular criticism from Russia, which characterized the act as a manifestation “of total disrespect for international law order.” The executive order reaffirms the right to resource extraction in space. It also dismisses the 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, known as the Moon Agreement, as a failed treaty not constitutive of customary international law because it has been ratified by only 18 state parties, none of which is a major space-faring country, including the U.S. Therefore, the executive order expressly rejects the Moon Agreement’s categorization of the space domain as a global commons. Russia also denounced this executive order, stating that any regulation of the exploration and use of resources in outer space adopted outside of the U.N. framework “is fraught with serious risks for international cooperation and understanding, including in outer space.”
Section 11 – Deconfliction of Space Activities
The Artemis Accords establish that activities in space should be conducted in a manner that complies with the U.N. Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities adopted in 2019 by the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Furthermore, signatories must also act in accordance with Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty, respecting the principles of due regard to the activities of other states and avoidance of harmful interference.
This section introduces the concept of “safety zones,” which seek to contribute to the avoidance of harmful interferences. However, some experts, such as Guoyu Wang, dean of the Academy of Air, Space Policy and Law at the Beijing Institute of Technology in China, fear that such areas could become “de facto spheres of influence of a state or be subject to national appropriation.”
Section 12 – Orbital Debris
Under this principle, states commit to planning for the mitigation of space debris in a manner that includes the safe disposal of spacecraft at the end of missions.
How Has the International Community Reacted to the Artemis Accords?
The Artemis Accords, which were first announced by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on May 15, aim to be a set of “vital principles that will create a safe, peaceful, and prosperous future in space for all of humanity to enjoy.” Christopher Johnson—space law adviser at the Secure World Foundation and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches space law—pointed out during my interview with him that “the drafters have taken great care to take the applicable international law into consideration, and reflect this in the Accords, particularly with regard to the Outer Space Treaty, the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Liability Convention, and the Registration Convention. NASA has aimed to make the Accords a set of general principles that all members of the international community can participate in.” For NASA, the accords’ objective has always been to encourage international cooperation. According to Mike Gold, NASA’s acting associate administrator for international and interagency relations, “the Artemis Accords will help to avoid conflict in space and on Earth by strengthening mutual understanding and reducing misperceptions. ... [T]hese are principles that will preserve peace.”
Every state that has signed the Artemis Accords so far is a natural ally of the United States that is eager to widen the reach of its own space program and industry: Luxembourg enacted a law in 2017 that allows for space mining; Japan has been seeking to collaborate with the U.S. on lunar exploration matters for some time; the U.K., Italy and Canada are all hoping that the Artemis Program will boost their economies through the development of their space manufacturing industries; the United Arab Emirates and Australia, whose space agencies are relatively young, founded in 2014 and 2018, respectively, are seeking to strengthen their international ties and see Artemis as an opportunity to gain relevance as space-faring powers; and Ukraine likely sees the opportunity to participate in the accords as a way to align itself with the U.S. against Russia.
However, not everyone in the international community shares NASA’s optimistic vision of what the Artemis Accords will mean for the future of space exploration. Glaringly absent from the list of signatories are Russia and China—two of the world’s main space powers. Both countries have expressed concerns that the Artemis Program is too U.S. centric. Russia has been particularly scathing in its criticism: The Kremlin has rejected the U.S.’s interpretation on the legality of resource extraction, and its space agency, Roscosmos, has likened the U.S. stance, and its reflection in the Artemis Accords, to colonialism. Sergei Savelyev, the agency’s deputy head in charge of international cooperation, stated that “[t]here have already been examples in history when one country decided to start seizing territories in its own interests and everyone remembers how that turned out.” Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin has vehemently opposed the accords, arguing that “the principle of invasion is the same, whether it be the Moon or Iraq.”
China has a similarly critical view of the Artemis Accords; military and aerospace expert Song Zhongping also compared the accords to colonization, accusing the U.S. of seeking to claim sovereignty over the moon. According to Song, the Artemis Accords are further proof that the U.S. views China as a rival to outcompete in the space domain, particularly in light of the advances China has been making in the past few years in the field of lunar exploration. It should be noted that, in any case, China would not be permitted to take part in the Artemis Program due to the U.S. congressional prohibition that restricts NASA’s cooperation with the Asian space power.
Both Russia and China, which last year agreed to start collaborating on lunar exploration matters, are likely to express their opposition to the Artemis Accords in the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, encouraging their allies to do the same. They could even attempt to present their own guidelines to regulate cislunar space exploration and the use of celestial bodies. In fact, one of these countries’ main criticisms of the accords was that they were not proposed and negotiated in an international forum, such as the United Nations but, rather, were discussed only by the eight initial signatories, who were invited by NASA to collaborate on the text. Any country that might want to join in the future will have to accede to the terms already set.
The same concern was expressed by others as well. In a roundtable session hosted by the Space Court Foundation on Oct. 22, Andre Rypl, a diplomat at the Mission of Brazil to the International Organizations in Vienna (who participated in a personal capacity and whose statements were not necessarily reflective of Brazil’s policy), highlighted the importance of establishing uniform definitions for key concepts relating to space exploration that allow true international cooperation to ensure that space activities are conducted in a peaceful manner. Rypl argued that this can be done only if negotiations take place in a forum where all members of the international community can voice their views. This sentiment was echoed by Cassandra Steer, Mission Specialist with the Australian National University Institute for Space, who also pointed out that it was precisely this failure to involve the international community at large in the drafting process that caused the European Union’s 2008 Draft International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities to flop. This attempt at establishing nonbinding norms of responsible behavior in space activities was presented to the international community only after the text had already been negotiated internally by EU member states.
Could the Artemis Accords Deepen Rivalries in Space?
The Artemis Accords have not created geopolitical tensions that did not previously exist. However, like any potentially impactful proposal on contentious issues, the accords have incited states to position themselves either in favor of or against them. The countries that have signed the accords, and any that will do so in the future, are not merely committing to cooperate in future explorations of celestial bodies. They are also accepting the interpretation of the legality of space resource extraction that the United States has championed for several years.
With the Artemis Accords, the United States is playing to its own strengths, as they promote collaboration not only with other states but also with private actors that will have an increasingly important role to play in this new age of space exploration. The U.S.’s commercial space industry’s prowess is unrivaled. Its two main competitors, Russia and China, traditionally conduct their space operations through their state-sponsored space agencies. China in particular believes that space exploration or moon missions are done by state actors since the space agencies carrying out those missions are state agencies. Furthermore, even when private actors engage in space activities, it is their states that ultimately bear international responsibility, as stipulated in Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty. Therefore, as Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy highlights, “from a nation’s point of view, there will always be concerns over questions of sovereignty and security.” This belief could cause competition between China and the United States to heat up—a possible outcome if China’s less-than-enthusiastic reception of the text of the accords is any indication.
The U.S.’s rivalry with China in space is not new. The rivalry with Russia is even older. But the Artemis Accords represent two main threats for these competitors that can cause those rivalries to escalate further. First, international willingness to participate in the accords reaffirms the U.S.’s dominance of the space geopolitical sphere. This is particularly because the Artemis Accords are NASA’s brainchild—they did not originate in an international forum such as the U.N. Prior efforts to regulate activities in space that were initially drafted by one sole state or a reduced group of allies have been unsuccessful and criticized at least in part because initial negotiations were not open to the broader international community. Examples of this include the aforementioned 2008 EU code of conduct, as well as the Sino-Russian proposal of a binding Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects, which was rejected when presented to the Conference on Disarmament in 2008 and 2014. (Admittedly, the proposal was rejected mostly due to its content and binding nature. The fact that it had first been negotiated bilaterally between Russia and China was a secondary concern for its detractors.) Although negotiations on the accords took place among only eight nations, led by the United States, they have not received the outright rejection that the other proposals cited above did, which highlights the extraordinary pull the United States has when it comes to space exploration, thus confirming China’s and Russia’s fears: The U.S. continues to be the leader in space geopolitics.
Second, the accords actively divide the international community between those who agree with the U.S.’s interpretation on the legality of the extraction of resources in space, and its compliance with the Outer Space Treaty, and those who oppose it. Enough acceptance of the U.S.’s understanding of this issue could contribute to the creation of customary international law, which would crystalize an issue that has, so far, remained murky and unclear. The acceptance of such interpretation would place the U.S. in a clear position of competitive advantage with respect to China and Russia, due to the strength of its private space industry. This is a situation both Russia and China seek to avoid at all costs, which explains why they have rejected the accords so vehemently. Ultimately, as Christopher Johnson told me in my interview with him, “States are going to interpret the text of the Accords in whatever way matches their ideology as well as their understanding of the Outer Space Treaty,” an understanding that is driven in no small part by their own national interests.
While the Artemis Accords may have been drafted to serve as a tool for cooperation in the pursuit of knowledge about outer space, some of the issues tackled in the text are contentious. The accords represent an opposition to Russian and Chinese interests in space, perhaps mostly because the agreement is a U.S. initiative that serves to further assert the U.S.’s dominance of the space domain. As a result, and in an effort to reach that dominant position themselves, Russia and China will seek to push back, which will inevitably cause tensions to heighten and rivalries between the U.S. and its allies on one side and China and Russia on the other to deepen. But perhaps that is the price that the United States has to pay for paving the way to the next era of space exploration in a manner that advances its interests and aligns with its values and principles.