The Trump administration is drafting a legal blueprint for mining on the moon under a new US-sponsored international agreement called the Artemis Accords, people familiar with the proposed pact told Reuters.
The agreement would be the latest effort to cultivate allies around NASA's plan to put humans and space stations on the moon within the next decade, and comes as the civilian space agency plays a growing role in implementing American foreign policy. The draft pact has not been formally shared with US allies yet.
The Trump administration and other spacefaring countries see the moon as a key strategic asset in outer space. The moon also has value for long-term scientific research that could enable future missions to Mars - activities that fall under a regime of international space law widely viewed as outdated.
The Artemis Accords, named after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's new Artemis moon programme, propose "safety zones" that would surround future moon bases to prevent damage or interference from rival countries or companies operating in close proximity.
The pact also aims to provide a framework under international law for companies to own the resources they mine, the sources said.
In the coming weeks, US officials plan to formally negotiate the accords with space partners such as Canada, Japan, and European countries, as well as the United Arab Emirates, opening talks with countries the Trump administration sees as having "like-minded" interests in lunar mining.
Russia, a major partner with NASA on the International Space Station, won't be an early partner in these accords, the sources said, as the Pentagon increasingly views Moscow as hostile for making "threatening" satellite manoeuvres towards US spy satellites in Earth orbit.
The United States is a member of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and sees the "safety zones" as an implementation of one of its highly debated articles. It states that celestial bodies and the moon are "not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means."
"This isn't some territorial claim," said one source, who requested anonymity to discuss the agreement. The safety zones - whose size would vary depending on the operation - would allow for coordination between space actors without technically claiming territory as sovereign, he said.
"The idea is if you are going to be coming near someone's operations, and they've declared safety zones around it, then you need to reach out to them in advance, consult and figure out how you can do that safely for everyone."
ARTEMIS AS 'NATIONAL POWER'
The Artemis Accords are part of the Trump administration's plan to forgo the treaty process at the United Nations and instead reach agreement with "like-minded nations," partly because a treaty process would take too long and working with non-spacefaring states would be unproductive, a senior administration official told Reuters.
As countries increasingly treat space as a new military domain, the US-led agreement is also emblematic of NASA's growing role as a tool of American diplomacy and is expected to stoke controversy among Washington's space rivals such as China.
"NASA's all about science and technology and discovery, which are critically important, but I think less salient is the idea that NASA is a tool of diplomacy," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said Tuesday.
"The important thing is, countries all around the world want to be a part of this. That's the element of national power," Bridenstine said, adding that participation in the Artemis programme is contingent on countries adhering to "norms of behaviour that we expect to see" in space.
NASA is investing tens of billions of dollars into the Artemis programme, which calls for putting humans on the moon by 2024 and building up a "sustainable presence" on the lunar south pole thereafter, with private companies mining lunar rocks and subsurface water that can be converted to rocket fuel.
The United States enacted a law in 2015 granting companies the property rights to resources they mine in outer space, but no such laws exist in the international community.
Joanne Gabrynowicz, editor-in-chief emerita of the Journal of Space Law, said an international agreement must come before staking out "some kind of exclusive area for science or for whatever reason."
"It is not anything any nation can do unilaterally and still have it be legal," she said.