In theory, space belongs to no one… yet

The imminent return of the United States to the Moon and the probable simultaneous landing of China have prompted Washington to prepare a legal framework in the form of the Artemis agreements. Basically, these reaffirm the main principles of the “space treaty”, drawn up at the height of the race for the stars, to frame the exploration and use of “outer space, including the Moon and the other celestial bodies”. These legal questions underlie the very origins of the conquest of space. As early as 1956, the Eisenhower administration had given priority to peaceful scientific exploration, to create a legal precedent authorizing the overflight of all countries from orbit for its future spy satellites. To everyone’s surprise, this precedent was provided on a plate by the Soviets themselves.

In 1959, the UN set up a Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which laid the foundations for space law. The “space treaty” was signed and ratified by Washington, Moscow and London in 1967. No less than 109 other states have done the same since. From its first articles, the text stipulates that no State can appropriate exo-atmospheric space. In 1979, a Moon Treaty proposed that all celestial bodies belong to the international community, but it was not signed by any of the major space powers and therefore remains a dead letter.

Since then, the exploitation of space has not remained the prerogative of governments. Like international waters, space, the Moon, Mars and asteroids are res nullius : they do not belong to anyone. It is impossible to appropriate a fishing or drilling zone outside territorial waters, but nothing prevents fishing or drilling there, which has not escaped the notice of certain ambitious entrepreneurs.

In 2015, Washington dented the 1967 treaty with its own interpretation: the United States does not appropriate any space territory, but American companies will be able to market the resources they manage to extract from it. Luxembourg immediately adopted similar legislation to become the European hub for research into the exploitation of asteroids.

The Artemis agreements introduce two new notions: historical sites of past exploration, such as those of the Apollo moon landings, will have to be protected, but it will also be necessary to negotiate exclusion zones and “safety zones” around scientific installations. to avoid disrupting their business.

Twenty countries, including France, have already signed these agreements, which do not come under the UN. Russia and China have announced that they will not. Moscow denounces the creation of a system favorable to the United States and Beijing compares them to the unequal treaties imposed on it by the colonial powers in the 19th century. It will indeed be enough to be the first to set up a permanent scientific installation at the lunar South Pole, where the water reserves are concentrated, to ask that the others do not get too close, and therefore cannot also benefit from this resource. essential.

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