The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

NSRC 2020

lunar base
As both public and private lunar ambitions increase, there’s a growing need to update agreements about the registration of such missions. (credit: Anna Nesterova/Alliance for Space Development)

Why improved registration is essential for public and private activities on the Moon

Bookmark and Share

At its recent workshop and symposium in Japan, the Moon Village Association (MVA) presented a white paper that asserted that the current Convention On Registration Of Objects Launched Into Outer Space (aka the Registration Convention) is inadequate to support a sustainable human presence on the Moon. After analyzing relevant space treaties and proposed norms, the paper concluded that the Registration Convention should be expanded to include additional topics that have become important since its adoption, but that other institutions or processes might also be needed in order to share information about topics that would not easily fit into the Registration Treaty’s scope or processes.

There is a gap between the topics proposed for information sharing and the treaties and processes that currently provide them.

The white paper listed 20 specific topics that were identified in the Outer Space Treaty, Registration Convention, Moon Treaty, recent reports from the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) and its subcommittees, and/or the final draft of the Building Blocks of the Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group. The topics and their sources were compiled in a table:

Table 1: Comparison of registration and information sharing requirements and implications (courtesy The Space Treaty Project)

Outer Space Treaty Registration Convention Moon Agreement Building Blocks COPUOS & Thematic Priorities
Nature* X X X X X
Location X X X X X
Results X X X
Inspection X X X X
Launching state X X (X) X
Designation/identification X (X) X
Date/time X X X X
Orbital parameters X X X X
Termination X (X) X X
Duration X X
Endangering phenomena X X X
Scientific discovery/life X X
Resources X ?
Priority rights (X) X
Harmful impacts X
Best practices (X) X
Scientific/ Heritage sites (X) X
Nuclear power (X) X
Change of status (X) X
Web links (X) X

* Includes function, purposes, and conduct
(X) = with proposed implementation agreement
? = The Hague Group’s Building Blocks include sharing the results of a mission; it is not clear if this includes the discovery of resources.

This appears to be the first time that a table has been used to compile and compare the various aspects of space law and policy. The table provides a visual perspective that allows two immediate observations. One is that since the adoption of the Outer Space Treaty and the Registration Convention, more topics for information sharing have become important for those with an interest in operating on the Moon. The other is that there is a gap between the topics proposed for information sharing and the treaties and processes that currently provide them.

The report recommends that the reporting process should be streamlined and automated, allowing member states (and perhaps private operators) to upload information as easily as someone might make an online purchase.

The current process is managed by the United Nations. Countries—sovereign states—provide information to the UN, including information that is provided to them by private operators. The UN then compiles the information in an online database that is accessible by all. The MVA report concludes that the following additional topics could easily be included in that process:

  1. Expected duration of mission
  2. Anticipated end-of-mission events, including possible impact sites (for successful impactors or failed missions)
  3. Use of nuclear power
  4. Websites providing information about the object/mission.

The report also concludes that the following topics would not easily fit into the current process but nevertheless merit the creation or designation of an institution or process for compiling and sharing such information:

  1. Sites and objects to be protected for scientific, historical, and/or cultural reasons
  2. Assignment of priority rights
  3. Discovery of resources
  4. Harmful impacts of lunar activity
  5. Discovery of life, endangering phenomena, or other scientific discoveries
  6. Designation of lunar landing sites
  7. Standards and recommended practices

Most of these topics would require an institution/process outside of the Registration Convention to make determinations, such as which sites merit protection, how priority rights are assigned, and how standards and recommended practices are determined. Others are not predictable or are not mission-specific, qualities that are necessary for the current registration process. Yet all have been identified by at least one entity as essential for establishing and maintaining humanity’s presence on the Moon.

The report also noted that the Registration Convention does not require countries to adopt national legislation that requires non-governmental entities to comply with reporting requirements, unlike the Outer Space Treaty’s Article VI:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty.

The report recommends that similar language—that countries shall adopt legislation requiring non-governmental entities to comply with international agreements—should be included in any new international agreement concerning registration and sharing information. It also recommends that the reporting process should be streamlined and automated, allowing member states (and perhaps private operators) to upload information as easily as someone might make an online purchase, once they have logged in with the proper code.

MVA’s recommendations are an effort to implement the policies highlighted in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as they relate to the exploration and use of outer space. The report noted that those policies include:

  1. Peaceful cooperation between nations
  2. Long-term sustainable development of outer space resources
  3. Sharing the benefits of the exploration and use of outer space with all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development
  4. Identification
  5. Safety and mitigation of risk
  6. Legal jurisdiction and liability
  7. Transparency and confidence building
  8. Facilitating increased involvement by non-governmental entities (including private industry), increased public-private partnerships, and increased multi-national efforts.

The first three are common to all UN-sponsored agreements concerning outer space. The rest are more specific to registration and sharing information.

Humanity is about to begin its greatest adventure, but it does not yet have the legal structure to support it. Space law itself needs capacity building.

During the presentation, MVA also referenced a recent conference paper by Dr. Mark Sundahl, professor at Cleveland State University and director of the Global Space Law Center. Sundahl suggests that registration of priority rights is essential for any entity wanting to develop lunar resources. Without registration there would be no basis for a claim of interference, which is prohibited under the Outer Space Treaty. Registration would thus operate much like the recording of real estate interests on Earth.

MVA identified five areas for future action:

  1. Liaison with entities, public and private, performing/planning activities on the Moon;
  2. Awareness-raising of the obligations and benefits of registering;
  3. Promotion of existing registers among established space actors and new players;
  4. Encouraging the seven current players on the Moon, and any future ones, to update the status of their lunar missions in the United Nations register;
  5. Contribution to drafting standards and recommended practices for registration, including potential national legislation and/or international agreements.

The white paper concludes with the following:

“The above tasks can be summarized as capacity-building for space law, creating the implementation framework for the United Nations Guidelines for Long-Term Sustainability with regards to registration and information sharing of lunar surface activity. Creating the framework will benefit both space-faring countries and their nationals, including private industry. Such an overall task would be consistent with MVA’s mission and within the expertise/objectives of the Coordination and Cooperation Project.” – MVA White Paper conclusion

The complete white paper, including an addendum that contains all relevant treaty sections and proposed norms, can be found at the home page for MVA’s website, along with information about how to join and participate in future discussions. All remarks made concerning this article will also be considered.

Humanity is about to begin its greatest adventure, but it does not yet have the legal structure to support it. Space law itself needs capacity building. The Moon Village Association hopes that its report on registration and sharing information will educate interested parties and encourage them to support this effort. It is an essential next step toward our destiny as a multi-planet species.

Note: we are temporarily moderating all comments submitted to deal with a surge in spam.