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No Secrets on the Moon
May 31, 2023

No Secrets on the Moon

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Moon Is Headed for Chaos, Our increasingly crowded moon could be headed for disaster. A lunar registry will help us right the course., How to manage moon exploration.

In March 2022, a wayward rocket crashed on the moon’s surface after years of uncontrolled tumbling through space. The collision created a new crater and sent debris flying across the lunar landscape. Whose rocket it was is up for debate, and the collision served as a reminder of the challenges and emerging dangers that come along with an increasingly crowded space environment.

The moon has long captivated human imagination. But recent technological advancements, geopolitical rivalries, and the potential of untapped resources have escalated the race to explore our closest celestial neighbor. Both NASA and the China National Space Administration, for example, have set their sights on identical landing locations in the vicinity of the lunar south pole. This competitive scenario highlights the need for a comprehensive understanding of lunar activities; successful and safe exploration of the moon demands intricate coordination among everyone who wants to be there.

Today, there is no such mechanism for sharing and verifying information. In other words, there’s no sure way to know who’s doing what on the moon at any given time. The result is an increased risk of political tensions, accidents, and environmental harms. As it stands, we are wholly unprepared to effectively regulate, coordinate, and monitor the uptick in lunar activity.

The solution? We need a global ‘moon registry‘: a comprehensive database of past, present, and future activities on and around the moon. Sharing fundamental information such as location, coordinates, dimensions, and planned maneuvers in the lunar environment could help prevent and mitigate future incidents. To increase participation, the registry should be managed by a third party, such as a neutral nonprofit organization created with stakeholder needs in mind. Doing so is a critical step in managing the intricate dance of exploration and exploitation on our celestial neighbor.

Creating such a registry won’t be easy. Space is a highly competitive arena and reflects the multipolar tension we’re experiencing so acutely on Earth. States are particularly sensitive to their interests and sovereignty, and trust—the foundation for collaborative international governance—is a rarefied commodity. Similarly, commercial enterprises do not traditionally like to share specific details about their activities (for obvious reasons). These dynamics have complicated previous efforts at creating such registries in space. For example, while the U.N. Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space says it registers 88 percent of activities and objects launched into space, major actors often fail to provide key required information in their submissions, or indeed, any details at all. Some just ignore the register completely.

Still, there are other (earthbound) models of success for coordinating stakeholders with competing values and interests. Consider the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement in Canada, where various groups came together to establish ecosystem-based management for a large tract of rainforest. Despite competing interests between environmentalists, First Nations groups, the logging industry, and the government, a shared commitment to collaboration and compromise allowed them to reach an agreement. Likewise, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is an organization that has successfully promoted discussion and decision-making among diverse internet actors, especially by leveraging its multistakeholder governance model. This model ensures that all internet stakeholders have a say in the decision-making process while operating with transparency and accountability, ultimately maintaining a commitment to keeping the internet secure, stable, and interoperable.

So how do we apply these lessons to the moon? This first step is building trust. One way to do this is by using advisory groups, which can serve as platforms for dialogue for diverse actors to voice their concerns and suggestions. In this case, we would need advisory groups that represent all interested parties—including space agencies, private space companies, international organizations, scientific communities, and civil society groups. These stakeholders all have unique interests: Space agencies and private companies may be concerned with exploration rights, scientific communities may be interested in research opportunities, and civil society groups may focus on the ethical and sustainable use of lunar resources. Ensuring everyone has a say in the design of the registry would encourage participation once it’s up and running.

A lunar registry can also learn from other registry efforts. For instance, the U.N. Outer Space Registry, while not the best adhered to, does help give an idea of how much detail participants might be expected to provide. It also highlights that legally binding treaties (in this case, the Outer Space Treaty) don’t necessarily equate to compliance in practice—meaning a more flexible focus on norms creation and a voluntary ‘buy-in’ approach might be more successful.

One model for such an approach is the International Atomic Energy Agency’s voluntary reactor and plutonium stockpile databases. Nuclear technology and material are highly sensitive (since they are inherently dual-use), but keeping things simple and adopting a buy-in approach has helped balance the trust equation by allowing states their sovereign agency while fostering trust-building through participation. There is a trade-off: Because they’re voluntary, the databases are not always up to date; for instance, China stopped providing data in 2017. But such unilateral moves cause a stir among the stakeholder community, which can build pressure toward transparency.

A voluntary lunar activities registry would face other hurdles. A registry managed by civil society represents a shift from traditional governance mechanisms, which are typically led by states or international organizations. Civil society governance offers many advantages, as a third-party NGO is typically perceived as more neutral and less politically influenced—and thus more trustworthy. Civil society groups can also be more flexible and innovative. But this model might be met with resistance from states that view such nonstate efforts as challenges to their sovereignty. Turkey’s Erdogan administration, for instance, has recently viewed NGO and civil society efforts not regulated by its government as seeking to undermine governmental authority. Similarly, the Chinese Communist Party has a complex relationship with civil society organizations that is defined by a lack of trust. Thus, it’s unlikely that all states would opt in to a transparency-building measure, but even if not all states opt in, a voluntary lunar activities registry is still useful, because the participation of even a subset of states and other actors can promote collaboration. Nonparticipating states may face diplomatic or public pressure to join the registry, particularly if it’s seen as contributing to the safety and sustainability of lunar activities.

Another hurdle is that registry input could be used to make controversial political or corporate statements or may not be honest in detail. A state or a company might exaggerate their lunar activities to assert dominance or downplay their actions to hide possibly illegal activities, such as a country declaring a larger-than-actual area for lunar mining to deter others, or a company underreporting its activities to evade regulatory scrutiny. The Antarctic Treaty System, for example, which mandates that states notify all signatories of their activities on the continent, recently saw a Chinese research base only partially declare its intent, seeking to downplay potentially unlawful commercial mineral exploration. If the registry itself wishes to remain apolitical, it wouldn’t be its job to correct such issues—it would be up to other actors to catch inconsistencies and, if needed, launch a community response.

There are additional regulatory and commercial issues that could generate reluctance among lunar actors. For instance, intellectual property is not currently legally protected in space, and without a universally agreed-upon regulatory framework (which is unlikely to happen anytime soon), actors may wish to keep their assets and information private or limit their offering. Thus, it’s important to carefully balance the detail a registry requires to function properly with how much an actor will realistically be willing to share.

So, yes, establishing a lunar registry would be tricky. But it’s also a crucial step toward managing our increasingly crowded moon. Uncontrolled activities can jeopardize missions and risk lives, and without transparent information-sharing, nations might unknowingly duplicate efforts and waste resources—which could quickly lead to unsustainable exploitation of our limited lunar resources. A lunar registry, on the other hand, can prevent accidents, promote efficient space exploration, and encourage sustainable practices. It also fosters international collaboration and transparency, reducing political tensions and building trust.

The collision of the rogue rocket in 2022 is a reminder of the hazards of operating in an environment where information-sharing is not standardized. By establishing a system for tracking objects and activities on and around the moon, we can ensure that countries, industry, civil society, and scientific communities can effectively communicate and coordinate their activities—and in doing so, lay the groundwork for a more transparent and equitable future for lunar exploration.


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