Nasa has made a landmark announcement about its plan to return to the moon and onto Mars, revealing that it has begun negotiating the “Artemis Accords”.
The accords are a set of agreements that would require any country that plans to work with the US on returning to the lunar surface to agree to a host of principles. The accords are named in keeping with the Artemis programme, which is the plan to send the first woman and next man to the moon by 2024.
They would include a commitment to be transparent in their work, to only explore space for “peaceful purposes”, and to guarantee they would work together to save any astronauts that came into danger during a mission.
Nasa was explicit that the agreements would be made in keeping with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which currently sets the legal framework for space exploration. That requires a set of commitments from countries which are intended to ensure that space missions are as safe and transparent as possible.
But the new Artemis Accords go further than those commitments, requiring more detailed principles from the countries prepared to work with the US to head to the moon and beyond.
“While Nasa is leading the Artemis programme, international partnerships will play a key role in achieving a sustainable and robust presence on the moon while preparing to conduct a historic human mission to Mars,” the agency said on its website.
“With numerous countries and private sector players conducting missions and operations in cislunar space, it’s critical to establish a common set of principles to govern the civil exploration and use of outer space.”
In full, the principles are that any mission should be conducted with peaceful purposes; should be transparent; and use technology that is interoperable and conforms to open, international standards that everyone can use. International partners also have to agree to provide emergency assistance to astronauts in trouble; publicly register any space objects; release the scientific data they gather; protect the heritage of historic space artefacts; gather resources according to international agreements; not harmfully interfere with other missions; and dispose of any debris or spacecraft responsibly.
When drafts of the accords were leaked earlier this month, they attracted ire from Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos. He suggested on Twitter that the US was planning to invade the moon like it had Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the accords would be a way of building a coalition of other countries that would allow for it to take over the lunar surface.
Nasa said that it would not be imposing the agreements on any country and that they would be negotiated bilaterally. Representatives also indicated that they hope for Russia to sign a version of the accords.
As well as drawing criticism from Russia, the accords appear to be something of a rebuke to the Chinese space programme, which has traditionally been less transparent than the US. Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine explicitly referenced the problems around its recent rocket launch as an example of where the accords could help.
“The empty core stage of the Long March 5B, weighing nearly 20 tons, was in an uncontrolled free fall along a path that carried it over Los Angeles and other densely populated areas,” Mr Bridenstine told Ars Technica.
“I can think of no better example of why we need the Artemis Accords. It’s vital for the US to lead and establish norms of behaviour against such irresponsible activities. Space exploration should inspire hope and wonder, not fear and danger.”