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U.S. space mining policies may trigger regulatory ‘race to the bottom,’ scientists warn

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Oct. 8 (UPI) — In a newly published policy paper, a pair of Canadian scientists warn that the United States is angling to establish itself as the de facto gatekeeper of the moon and other celestial bodies.

Earlier this year, NASA published a new set of rules for lunar mining and other space activities, dubbing the voluntary guidelines the “Artemis Accords.”

Aaron Boley and Michael Byers, authors of the new Science paper, argue that the Artemis Accords are part of a concerted effort by the U.S. and NASA to set a legal precedent for space-based resource extraction.

“It’s not the Artemis Accords alone that are problematic,” Michael Byers, professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, told UPI in an email. “Rather, it’s the ongoing and concerted U.S. diplomatic effort to promote national regulation of space mining and to proceed with resource extraction before a multilateral agreement has been negotiated.”

In 2015, Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which allowed U.S. citizens and companies to “engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources.”

Last month, NASA said it plans to buy lunar soil from a commercial company.

“We are buying the regolith, but we’re doing it really to demonstrate that it can be done, that the resources extracted from the moon are in fact owned by the people who invest their sweat, and their treasure, and their equity into that effort,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a virtual presentation in September.

Byers and his co-author Boley, professor of astronomy and physics at the University of British Columbia, see the succession of legislative and policy moves by the United States as an attempt to establish national regulation of space mining.

“The current U.S. approach to space mining emphasizes national regulation and rejects space as being a ‘global commons,'” Byers told UPI. “The result could be inconsistent national laws, a regulatory ‘race to the bottom’ and even ‘flags of convenience’ as nations compete to attract space mining companies.”

Without international standards and an independent system of monitoring, Byers and Boley argue, bad behavior by one nation begets bad behavior by another. The paper’s authors suggest bilateral agreements like the Artemis Accords could imperil efforts to forge future international space agreements.

“A better alternative would be to negotiate a multilateral agreement, and to do so now, rather than seeking to set precedents through unilateral and bilateral actions,” Byers said.

Byers and Boley would like to see a multilateral approach to space resource management. The authors point to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer as a model for international cooperation.

“The key is to have solid science, open information sharing, alternative technologies, and cooperation among actors,” Byers said. “An international framework will set the standards and provide the required transparency. It will also give a voice to nations that cannot operate in space now, but will in the future. Scientists, engineers, and industry can do the rest.”

While the Montreal Protocol has enjoyed considerable success in shrinking the hole in the ozone layer, the fight to curb the release of ozone-depleting chemicals isn’t a precise corollary for regulating space mining.

“Many in the U.S. space industry would disagree with the idea that we need an international, multi-lateral treaty to move forward with space mining,” Alex Gilbert, research fellow at the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines, told UPI in an email. “There is no evidence that a multilateral or global treaty would be more effective than the approach the United States is taking.”

Rather than the Montreal Protocol, Gilbert points to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea — not as an ideal model but as an example of a multinational agreement gone wrong. The United States declined to sign the law because it requires participation in an international profit sharing mechanism.

“The administration of UNCLOS deep sea mining regime leaves much to be desired — commercial extraction has yet to take place, the profit sharing mechanism is not clearly established, and it is unclear whether there will be sufficient levels of environmental protection,” Gilbert said. “Most deep seabed mining leases have gone to China and without effective governance it is not clear that that system is more effective than alternatives.”

To date, attempts to establish a multinational space mining regulatory regime have faltered, and Gilbert suggests bilateral agreements like the Artemis Accords can serve as a stepping stone to a multinational space governance regime.

“The U.S. is uniquely suited to be a leader on space mining policy and space policy more broadly,” Gilbert said. “It is currently engaged with space partners around the globe and its efforts are making it a global leader in space policy. International accords are difficult to negotiate but the U.S. approach is well suited to developing an iterative, collaborative and international process.”



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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touches down on asteroid Bennu to nab sample

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Oct. 20 (UPI) — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx touched down on asteroid Bennu on Tuesday evening in a mission to scoop a sample of rocks and dirt.

The spacecraft — the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer — made soft contact with the asteroid at 6:12 p.m. EDT.

The historic “touch and go” event featured animation displaying OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection activities in real time. It takes time for real images of the touchdown to travel back to the Earth, so they won’t be released to the public until Wednesday.

The craft executed a series of maneuvers over the course of several hours before making soft contact with the surface of the asteroid to collect regolith, or rocks and dirt.

“It will be four and a half hours of anxiousness,” Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said in a news conference ahead of the event.

Buck made a comparison to the descent of a spacecraft on Mars, when there is typically “seven minutes of terror.”

The goal is to learn more about the solar system’s history and help “planetary defense” engineers with missions to protect earth from rogue asteroids. Bennu is believed to be a window into the solar system’s past since it’s a pristine, carbon-rich body carrying building blocks of both planets and life.

At around 1:50 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft left orbit around the asteroid before executing a series of burns to position itself over a sampling area nicknamed Nightingale.

Once in position, the craft began its approach to the asteroid at 5:50 p.m. EDT. It then spent about 15 seconds attempting to collect the regolith sample before backing away again.

The area, which is 52 feet in diameter, will make for a more demanding landing than expected, Kenneth Getzandanner, OSIRIS-REx flight dynamics manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the news conference.

The original mission called for a landing “zone” about 150% larger than Nightingale, at 82 feet, but that changed because Bennu was more rocky than expected.

The goal was to collect at least 1.7 ounces of fine-grained material, but the spacecraft can carry up to 4.4 pounds, Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona said.

“I would love for that capsule to be completely full,” Enos said.

Though early images from the asteroid should hint at whether the mission succeeded, it will take engineers roughly 10 days to compare and analyze the mass before and after the maneuver to actually know how much dirt is inside the OSIRIS-REx.

If it failed, the spacecraft has enough fuel to attempt two more touch downs to collect material.

The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth, with the regolith sample from Bennu, in 2023.



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SpaceX scrubs Starlink launch until Thursday, if weather cooperates

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Just three days after sending 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit, SpaceX is aiming to launch another batch of broadband satellites into space from Florida.

If the weather cooperates, Thursday’s launch will be SpaceX’s 15th Starlink mission.

Liftoff had been scheduled for 12:29 p.m. EDT Wednesday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but controllers scrubbed the launch due to weather and rescheduled for 12:14 p.m. on Thursday.

With a launch Sunday, SpaceX increased the size of their Starlink constellation to nearly 800 satellites. The 15th mission will see another 60-odd satellites join the network.

“The goal of Starlink is to create a network that will help provide Internet services to those who are not yet connected, and to provide reliable and affordable Internet across the globe,” according to the Kennedy Space Center.

Weather for Wednesday’s planned launch had looked so-so and the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicted a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions.

“A mid-level inverted trough and associated easterly wave currently across the Bahamas will meander into the state over the next few days, bringing enhanced moisture, cloud cover, and instability with a higher coverage of showers and storms,” Space Force forecasters wrote.

They said Thursday’s forecast looks quite similar to Wednesday’s.

Earlier this month, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Starlink’s constellation was big enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in both the United States and southern Canada.

SpaceX has already offered Starlink Internet services to emergency responders in wildfire-stricken areas of Washington State.

Washington’s Hoh tribe is also using the Internet service to provide their members online education and telehealth services.



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Chernobyl-level radiation harms bumblebee reproduction

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Oct. 21 (UPI) — Bees are more sensitive to radiation than scientists thought. Scientists found the reproduction rates of bumblebees declined significantly when exposed to Chernobyl-level radiation.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, suggests radiation in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could impair pollination services, triggering wider ecological consequences than previously estimated.

Humans are not allowed to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the disaster area more directly impacted by the 1986 nuclear accident, the worst in history. However, the destroyed nuclear reactors are surrounded by forests that are populated by robust populations of birds, bears, bison, lynx, moose, wolves and more.

Efforts to gauge the effects of radiation contamination on insects have yielded mixed results in the past. While some studies have suggested insects are relatively radiation-resistant, others have demonstrated significant impairment.

When researchers exposed bumblebees in the lab to radiation dose of 100 µGyh-1, an amount approximating exposure inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, reproduction rates among the bees dropped between 30 and 45 percent.

Researchers found a direct correlation between the size of the radiation dose and reproduction rate declines. Lower levels of radiation had a smaller effect, while larger doses yielded greater declines.

Scientists were surprised to find they were able to detect reproductive rate declines at very small levels of radiation exposure.

“Our research provides much needed understanding as to the effects of radiation in highly contaminated areas and this is the first research to underpin the international recommendation for the effects of radiation on bees,” lead study author Katherine Raines, environmental scientist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, said in a news release.



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