Resource scarcity on the Moon could lead to overcrowding, resource depletion and international tension, warns an international team of scientists in a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.
“A lot of people think of space as a place of peace and harmony between nations. The problem is there’s no law to regulate who gets to use the resources, and there are a significant number of space agencies and others in the private sector that aim to land on the moon within the next five years,” says Martin Elvis, astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian and the lead author on the paper.
“We looked at all the maps of the Moon we could find and found that not very many places had resources of interest, and those that did were very small. That creates a lot of room for conflict over certain resources.”
Water will be needed for survival on the Moon. Iron will be required to build anything. The Helium-3 isotope will be the fuel for nuclear fusion. Even solar power is subject to scarcity; only a few spots at the lunar poles are exposed to 24-hour-per-day sunlight. The resources are spread unevenly across the satellite.
“The biggest problem is that everyone is targeting the same sites and resources: states, private companies, everyone. But they are limited sites and resources,” says Tony Milligan, a co-author and senior researcher with the Cosmological Visionaries project at King’s College London. “We don’t have a second moon to move on to. This is all we have to work with.”
The authors held out hope that mechanisms contrived on Earth might provide a framework for avoiding conflict.
“Important conceptual foundations already exist and we can start implementing, or at least deliberating, concrete, local measures to address anticipated problems at specific sites today,” says co-author Alanna Krolikowski, assistant professor of science and technology policy at Missouri University of Science and Technology. “The likely first step will be convening a community of prospective users, made up of those who will be active at a given site within the next decade or so. Their first order of business should be identifying worst-case outcomes, the most pernicious forms of crowding and interference, that they seek to avoid at each site. Loss aversion tends to motivate actors.” She adds:
Examples of analogs on Earth point to mechanisms for managing these challenges. Common-pool resources on Earth, resources over which no single actor can claim jurisdiction or ownership, offer insights to glean. Some of these are global in scale, like the high seas, while other are local like fish stocks or lakes to which several small communities share access.
It would be a good idea to map the Moon’s resources and identify potential hotspots before anyone starts digging, drilling, or collecting, the authors suggest.