July 15, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

The Space Review: The Artemis Accords take off

Signing ceremony of the Artemis Accords

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

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

Since then, the pace has accelerated considerably. Ten countries signed the Artemis Accords in 2023, from major spacefarers such as Germany and India to Angola, which has not yet signed 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 the current expansion of space activities, it is very important to establish rules for the long-term security of outer space,” Drucker said.

This has resulted in a regular series of signing ceremonies, some in the countries signing the Accords and others at NASA headquarters. Those in Washington followed a similar script: comments from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and, typically, a State Department official, along with the minister and ambassador of the country signing the Accords. After the comments, they sign copies of the Agreements, pose for photographs, and then exit.

The pace of signing resulted in a doubleheader of sorts on May 30: NASA headquarters hosted a 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 stayed in the room, taking photos in front of the NASA backdrops or on the podium with the NASA logo.

But why are more and more countries joining the Agreements after almost four years? Some countries have seen the Artemis Accords as a way to get involved in the overall Artemis lunar exploration effort, although signing the document does not guarantee any role in Artemis.

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

Others see the signing of the Accords as a sign that they intend to be a responsible player in space, supporting practices such as transparency, registration of space objects and mitigating the creation of orbital debris.

“In the current expansion of space activities, it is very important to establish standards for the long-term security of outer space,” said Tomáš Drucker, Minister of Education, Research, Development and Youth of Slovakia. “These rules should ensure that space activities are safe, clean and sustainable, benefiting all nations. By fostering business and public-private partnerships and accelerating international cooperation, we can achieve these goals together.”

U.S. officials say they are seeing growing momentum for the Accords. “As the number continues to grow, there is more and more interest,” Valda Vikmanis-Keller, director of the State Department's Office of Space Affairs, said at the Meridian Space Diplomacy Forum on April 30. “Countries are looking around and realizing that their neighbors and other international partners have signed and I think there is a growing curiosity.” He added that while the United States had previously been proactive in discussing the Agreements with the countries, now countries are approaching the United States to sign them.

The level of commitment between countries to get them to sign the Agreements has varied widely. Iceland, for example, didn't even bother to hold a signing ceremony, instead delivering 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 career in defining, underwriting, implementing and living by the principles of safe, responsible and sustainable exploration is, to me, a career worth having,” Feldstein said.

On the one hand, the Artemis Accords have limited weight. It is a non-binding document, unlike a treaty, which effectively has no sanctions for not adhering to its principles. But U.S. officials see that as a strength. “The fact that the Accords are non-binding lowers the barrier to entry,” Feldstein said, which is helpful since the signatories have a wide range of spaceflight knowledge and experience.

They argue that the signing of the Accords shows a commitment to responsible space activities that does not end with the signing ceremony. “The Accords are the beginning of a discussion,” said Vikmanis-Keller. “They bring people together in these discussions. They are free, frank and open in a unique way that other forums may not allow.”

That includes meetings of agency heads of signatories to the Artemis Accords 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 issues related to the Accords in more detail.

The latest workshop, held at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters in suburban Montreal last month, included representatives from 24 signatories. In a statement after the meeting, NASA said participants discussed issues of non-interference, transparency and sharing of scientific data, as well as conducting “a tabletop exercise focused on defining and implementing key principles.”

Feldstein said those efforts have already had results. Previous discussions led to an agreement between the countries on a basic set of information about lunar missions that countries would share to ensure those missions did not interfere with those of other countries. NASA used that earlier this year to provide information on two lunar landing missions carried out by astrobotic and intuitive machines carrying NASA payloads.

The efforts around the Artemis Accords come as China offers 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, as China has not published 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 features to the Artemis Accords,” he said. “Probably the most notable differences, from our perspective, is that we have a commitment to open science, scientific data sharing and transparency.”

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

US officials downplayed any competition between the Accords and ILRS principles. “I think it's a tremendously good thing that China felt the need to articulate its own version of those kinds of principles after the Artemis Accords were completed,” Feldstein said. “A career in defining, underwriting, implementing and living by the principles of safe, responsible and sustainable exploration is, to me, a career worth having.”

There is nothing, both Feldstein and Vikmanis-Keller said at the forum, that would prevent a country from signing the Artemis Accords and joining the ILRS. To date, no country has done both, although there is speculation that a pair of 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 coming months. Asked to estimate how many countries would be signatories by the end of the year, Feldstein declined to give a figure, but Vikmanis-Keller offered a personal, unofficial prediction: 57. The number of countries in discussions about signing the Accords is not It is public, although the State Department noted in May, after a meeting of the Permanent Bilateral Commission between the United States and Portugal, that talks were underway for Portugal to sign the Accords.

That growth is a sign of optimism about the future of space exploration, proponents of the Accords argue. “The increasingly rapid growth of 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 now. He is Chief Growth Officer at Redwire. “In a time when we see so much conflict and pain in the world, Artemis provides a light that can show us a path to a future full of wonder.”

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