DARPA’s new space program stirs worldwide concern

A new space technology exploration program announced by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency is riling up international opposition as the race to mine space heats up

On the same day that Joe Biden obtained the Electoral College majority needed to become president of the United States, a metallic asteroid roughly half the size of New York City made its closest approach to earth. Far from indulging in apocalyptic visions of cosmic destruction, mining company executives like Bob Goldstein of US Nuclear Corp. were seeing dollar signs. Somewhere in the ballpark of $10,000 quadrillion of them in fact.

Goldstein and others in the resource extraction industry have been salivating over these otherworldly mineral prizes ever since Barack Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law, which grants U.S. citizens the right to own resources mined in space. The bill, introduced and co-sponsored exclusively by Republican Congressmen, was passed by a unanimous vote in 2015.

Praised as a “landmark for American leadership in space exploration” by Congressman Bill Posey (R-FL), the Space Act of 2015, as it is also known, has elicited all manner of effusive reactions from private sector space industry giants like Planetary Resources, which had already struck a deal with Bechtel Corporation in 2013 to mine asteroids. Planetary co-founder Eric Anderson declared that the legislation was nothing less than a “major step toward humanity becoming a multiplanetary species.”

Despite the Neil Armstrong-esque displays by both private and public sector players, the recent inclusion of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) into the conversation has many on the international space policy side of the equation worried.

NOM4D

The Novel Orbital and Moon Manufacturing, Materials and Mass-efficient Design (NOM4D) program announced by DARPA on February 5 “seeks to pioneer technologies for adaptive, off-earth manufacturing to produce large space and lunar structures,” according to the agency’s press release.

The language used to describe the program has sparked heated debate over whether or not NOM4D will violate Article IV of the United Nations Outer Space Treaty (OST), which prohibits the “establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications” anywhere on the lunar surface or cislunar orbit (between the earth and the moon).

Chris Johnson, legal counsel of the Secure World Foundation—a private foundation that promotes space sustainability—clarified some of the ambiguity surrounding the debate in an email to Breaking Defense, stating that “If DARPA (or its contractors) are conducting activities on the Moon which are temporarily peaceful in nature, […] this is still a MILITARY activity, and therefore pretty clearly prohibited.”

NOM4D program director manager Bill Carter dismisses such concerns, claiming to be “slightly baffled” by the controversy, asserting that the project is “a materials science program. We’re going to be doing stuff on the ground—we actually don’t have any plans to launch anything.”

Carter, a materials scientist, elaborated about the areas of focus and highlighted the program’s interest in “the capabilities of materials that I extract from regolith as they apply to things [like] reflective surfaces and so forth,” which “could be important for Earth observation or situation awareness, all those things.”

The validity of Carter’s arguments notwithstanding, his mention of regolith in particular buttresses Johnson’s concerns. The “dust-like material that covers the lunar surface” is considered a prime resource for the eventual construction of moon bases. Something of a generic term used to describe the layer of “clays, silicates, various minerals, groundwater, and organic molecules” that form on the surface of solid rock, lunar regolith, by contrast, has its own unique composition.

As Johnson says, while “it may be possible for someone to offer a tortured argument as to how this is not explicitly illegal — either through de-linking the activity from the US military through intermediaries, or separating activities from the lunar surface and surrounding deep space, or painting the military activity as peaceful in nature,” he “would not be buying it.”

The opposition

Carter goes on to differentiate the activity DARPA will be engaging in from other space exploration initiatives which he believes exclude the program from the questions of policy it is being confronted with. According to him, the “big difference” consists of DARPA’s centering its effort around “robotic capabilities” as opposed to NASA’s “human exploration and associated capabilities.” But, this also runs into problematic territory when taking the DoD’s own position into consideration.

In his confirmation testimony, Biden’s Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, extolled Obama’s “third offset” strategy, which explicitly cites robotics as one of the innovations to be fast-tracked through the public and private sector in order to secure the nation’s technological edge in response to China and other threats. Austin assured lawmakers that he would maintain a “laserlike focus” on countering the Chinese military threat and building “space-based platforms,” while “repeatedly” stating that his department will consider space a war-fighting domain.

DARPA’s program “is particularly tone deaf”, according to Jessica West, a senior researcher at Canada’s Project Ploughshares and the Space Security Index project. She worries that the agency’s project undermines the efforts of other international space organizations seeking to build a cooperative framework “to guide civil activities on the Moon,” pointing out that “blurring of civil, military, and commercial capabilities and intentions in space is exactly what the U.S. accuses other countries such as China of doing.”

Other policy experts are warning that a “brewing space mining war” between the U.S., China, and Russia could lead to an unwinnable conflict that could indeed spell Armageddon for our own relatively tiny planet. As Roscosmos’ deputy general director for international cooperation, Sergey Saveliev stated on the occasion of Donald Trump’s executive order to support mining on the moon, “history knows examples of a country starting to seize territories for its own benefit—everyone remembers the outcome.”

Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.

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