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Artemis Accords signing ceremony
Mkhitar Hayrapetyan, Minister of High-Tech Industry of the Republic of Armenia, signs the Artemis Accords June 12 as (from left) Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Jennifer Littlejohn, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, and Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia to the United States Lilit Makunts look on. (credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Artemis Accords lift off

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At the end of 2022, more than two years after the rollout of the Artemis Accords, 23 nations had signed the document outlining best practices for sustainable space exploration. Since eight of the countries had signed the Accords at once at an unveiling event in October 2020, it meant that 15 nations had joined since then.

The pace has picked up considerably since then. Ten countries signed the Artemis Accords in 2023, ranging from major spacefaring countries like Germany and India to Angola, which has yet to sign the Outer Space Treaty, the foundational document of international space law. So far this year another ten have signed, most recently Armenia last week.

“In today’s rapidly expanding space activities, it is very important to set rules for long-term safety of outer space,” said Drucker.

That has resulted in a regular series of signing ceremonies, some in the countries that were signing the Accords and others at NASA’s headquarters. The ones in Washington followed a similar script: remarks by NASA administrator Bill Nelson and, typically, a State Department official, along with the minister and ambassador of the country signing the Accords. After the remarks, they sign copies of Accords, pose for pictures, and then head on out.

The pace of signings resulted in a doubleheader of sorts on May 30: NASA headquarters hosted one ceremony that morning for Peru and another, a few hours later, for Slovakia. The two events followed similar scripts, although after the second event some of the Slovak officials lingered in the room, taking pictures of themselves in front of NASA backdrops or at the podium with NASA’s logo.

But why are more countries signing up for the Accords after nearly four years? Some countries have seen the Artemis Accords as a way to get involved in the overall Artemis lunar exploration effort, even though signing the document doesn’t guarantee any roles in Artemis.

“This opportunity will allow to Peru to participate in activities related to the exploration and sustainable use of space resources as well as to promote scientific and aerospace development in our country,” said Peru’s foreign minister, Javier González-Olaechea, at his country’s signing ceremony.

Others see signing the Accords as a signal that they intend to be a responsible actor in space, backing practices like transparency, registration of space objects, and mitigating creation of orbital debris.

“In today’s rapidly expanding space activities, it is very important to set rules for long-term safety of outer space,” said Tomáš Drucker, Slovakia’s minister of education, research, development and youth. “These rules should ensure that space activities are safe, clean and sustainable, benefiting all nations. By fostering commercial and public private partnerships and hastening international cooperation, we can achieve these goals together.”

US officials say they are seeing growing momentum for the Accords. “As the number keeps growing, there’s more and more interest,” said Valda Vikmanis-Keller, director of the Office of Space Affairs at the State Department, at the Meridian Space Diplomacy Forum April 30. “Countries are looking around and realizing that their neighbors, other international partners, have signed, and I think there’s a growing curiosity.” She added that while the US had earlier been proactive in discussing the Accords with countries, now countries are approaching the US about signing.

The level of engagement among countries to get them to sign the Accords has varied widely. Iceland, for example, didn’t even bother with a signing ceremony, instead providing a signed copy of the Accords, apparently unsolicited, to the State Department last October. “For others, it’s a very sustained discussion,” Karen Feldstein, NASA associate administrator for international and interagency relations, said at the Meridian forum.

“A race to define, sign up to, implement, live by principles for safe and responsible and sustainable exploration is, for me, a race worth having,” said Feldstein.

On one level, the Artemis Accords carry limited weight. It is a non-binding document, unlike a treaty, with effectively no penalties for not adhering to its principles. But US officials see that as a strength. “Having the Accords being non-binding lowers the barrier to entry,” Feldstein said, useful since the signatories have a wide range of expertise and experience in spaceflight.

Signing the Accords, they argue, shows a commitment to responsible space activities that doesn’t end with the signing ceremony. “The Accords are the beginning of a discussion,” said Vikmanis-Keller. “They bring together people in these discussions. They are free and frank and open in a unique way that perhaps other fora don’t allow.”

That includes heads-of-agencies meetings of Artemis Accords signatories held during the last two International Astronautical Congresses (IAC) in Paris in 2022 and Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2023; another is planned for the next IAC in Milan in October. There have also been more in-depth workshops to discuss topics related to the Accords in more detail.

The latest workshop, held at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters in suburban Montréal last month, included representatives of 24 signatories. In a statement after the meeting, NASA said participants discussed topics of non-interference, transparency and exchanges of scientific data, as well as conducted “a tabletop exercise centered on further defining and implementing key tenets.”

Feldstein said those efforts have already had results. Earlier discussions led to agreement among countries on a basic set of information about lunar missions that countries would share to ensure those missions did not interfere with those from other countries. NASA used that earlier this year to provide information on two lunar lander missions by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines that carried NASA payloads.

The efforts around the Artemis Accords come as China is offering its own version, through the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) program. Countries that agree to participate in ILRS—11 as of last month, when Serbia joined—also agree to follow a set of principles intended to be analogous to the Artemis Accords.

It is difficult to compare the ILRS principles with the Accords since China has not released a public version of those principles. However, speaking at the Meridian forum, NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy said it was her understanding that the two documents were similar.

“The ILRS has many similar characteristics to the Artemis Accords,” she said. “Probably the most notable differences, from our perspective, is that we have a commitment to open science and the sharing of scientific data, and transparency.”

There is nothing, officials said at the forum, that prevents a country from both signing the Artemis Accords and joining the ILRS.

US officials downplayed any competition between the Accords and the ILRS principles. “China, feeling the need to articulate its own version of those kinds of principles after the Artemis Accords were completed, is I think a tremendously good thing,” Feldstein said. “A race to define, sign up to, implement, live by principles for safe and responsible and sustainable exploration is, for me, a race worth having.”

There is nothing, both Feldstein and Vikmanis-Keller said at the forum, that prevents a country from both signing the Artemis Accords and joining the ILRS. To date, no countries have done both, although there is speculation that a couple ILRS signatories, South Africa and Thailand, are at least considering signing the Accords.

Officials said they expect more countries to sign the Accords in the months to come. Asked to estimate how many countries would be signatories by the end of the year, Feldstein declined to give a number but Vikmanis-Keller offered a personal, unofficial prediction: 57. The pipeline of countries in discussions about signing the Accords is not public, although the State Department noted in May, after a meeting of the U.S.-Portugal Standing Bilateral Commission, that talks were underway about Portugal signing the Accords.

That growth is a sign of optimism about the future of space exploration, advocates of the Accords argue. “The increasingly rapid growth the Artemis Accords demonstrates a global belief in a better future for humanity in space,” said Mike Gold, a former NASA official who led development of the Accords at the agency in 2020 and is now chief growth officer of Redwire. “During a time when we see so much conflict and pain in the world, Artemis provides a light that can show us a path toward a future full of wonder.”

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