China, the Moon, and the Outer Space Treaty


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Link here. The article speaks to the problems of sovereignty, ownership, and political borders created by the language of Outer Space Treaty, specifically illustrated now by China’s newest effort to put a lander on the far side of the Moon.

[This] pioneering space travel has raised concern that China is also interested in the tiny spots on the moon that never go dark, the polar peaks of eternal light. Those peaks are vanishingly small, occupying one-one hundred billionth of the lunar surface − roughly equivalent to three sheets of NHL ice on Earth. But their near-ceaseless sunshine gives them great value as a source of solar energy, to power everything from scientific experiments to mining operations.

Their small size could also, scientists have argued, allow one country to take sole occupancy of this unique real estate without falling afoul of the Outer Space Treaty. That agreement stipulates that no state can exert sovereignty in outer space. But it also calls on countries “to avoid interference” with equipment installed by others.

That provides a loophole of sorts, researchers say. The installation of very sensitive equipment on the peaks of eternal light, such as a radio telescope − a 100-metre long uncovered wire used to study transmissions from the sun, and deeper corners of the universe − could use up much of the available space while also providing a rationale to bar others from the area on the grounds that the telescope is too sensitive to be disturbed.

“Effectively a single wire could co-opt one of the most valuable pieces of territory on the moon into something approaching real estate, giving the occupant a good deal of leverage even if their primary objective was not scientific inquiry,” researchers from Harvard University, King’s College London and Georg-August Universitat Gottingen wrote in a 2015 paper.

Because the Outer Space Treaty outlaws any nation from claiming territory, it provides no method for any nation, or private company, to establish its borders or property rights. To protect what they own nations are therefore will be forced to create their own rules, willy-nilly, such as the one speculated above. And when they disagree, only the use of force will be available to either defend or defy these arbitrary rules.

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5 comments

  • Localfluff

    The definition of property rights is exactly that others are not allowed to take it or destroy it (by interference). And violence is of course necessary to uphold property right. So the Outer Space treaty indeed in effect defines property rights in space. In the natural way that first come first served by homesteading.

    The Etarnal Peaks of Light are not only the potentially most valuable place on the Moon, but in the Solar System! The only places where one can stand on solid ground with enough gravity to actually stand on it, while still almost always have the Sun in sight, are those peaks and Mercury’s poles. Probably polar areas of the Jovian moons too, but the insolation is only 4% there of that on the moon. May the first one who takes the peaks own them!

  • Dick Eagleson

    The idea that the so-called “Peaks of Eternal Light” – which none of them actually is – are uniquely valuable lunar real estate is one of those “things everyone knows that ain’t so” we would be well-advised to forget.

    In order to actually get full-time insolation, solar arrays would have to be both built atop non-trivially tall towers anchored to these peaks and be steerable. Even in 1/6-g, the amount of structural mass needed to support worthwhile square yardages of collector surface would be considerable and the maximum practically achievable electrical output would have a fairly sharp upper limit.

    If nuclear reactors and/or lunar-orbital solar power satellites are used instead, such limits don’t apply and the generated power could be applied anywhere on the lunar surface, not just a few teensy places near the poles.

    As for proximity to “lunar ice” deposits in permanently shadowed craters, the existence of such deposits is very much yet to be proven. If these alleged deposits fail to prove out, the alleged unique value of the lunar polar peaks also takes a huge hit.

    There are huge quantities of light metals and oxygen known to exist pretty much everywhere on the lunar surface. I think the basis of pioneering lunar industry has to be these two facts, not problematical “ice” that may well prove illusory.

  • The other mad mike

    At what point has China ever respected any treaty or agreement when it is counter to its perceived interest?

    Please note their actions in the South China Sea and on the high seas as well as in low earth orbit.
    Actions predict action far better than diplomatic talk.

    They have rightly noted the lack of response, other than talk, to their actions. They will continue to play the diplomatic game while their plans progress, ground truth is a irreversible fact, absent military action.
    The point is it makes reversing their actions far more costly than anyone is willing to pay because we talked and talked while they acted.

  • pzatchok

    Whats thew best fastest way to get rid of nuclear reactor heat on the moon?

    Geothermal?

  • Localfluff

    @pzatchok
    Geothermal seems completely impossible. But Lunathermal is a free heat sink into about room temperature. The dry regolith doesn’t conduct much heat, but maybe pumping down some water in it would help.

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