Donald Trump paused his efforts around the growing coronavirus crisis to sign an executive order clearing the path for US to mine the moon for resources.
According to documents released by the White House, the order rejects the 1979 global agreement known as the Moon Treaty which says any activity in space should conform with international law.
“Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space,” the order states.
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“Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons.”
While the move was condemned by Russia, which suggested America may be trying to “privatise space”, US officials say the 1979 treaty was only signed by 17 of 95 member states on the relevant United Nations committee.
Scott Pace, from the National Space Council, said in a statement on behalf of the White House: “As America prepares to return humans to the moon and journey on to Mars, this Executive Order establishes US policy toward the recovery and use of space resources, such as water and certain minerals, in order to encourage the commercial development of space.”
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The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, accused Mr Trump of creating a basis to take over other planets.
“Attempts to expropriate outer space and aggressive plans to actually seize territories of other planets hardly set the countries (on course for) fruitful cooperation,” it said in a statement.
Relations between Russia and the US are at post-Cold War lows, but cooperation on space has continued despite an array of differences over everything from Ukraine to accusations of election meddling.
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Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “any kind of attempt to privatise space in one form or another – and I find it difficult to say now whether this can be seen as an attempt to privatise space – would be unacceptable”.
The order was entirely in keeping with the Trump administration’s stance on domestic mining, which it has sought to encourage by rolling back a series of environmental protections despite widespread condemnation.
It also continues the president’s interest in space.
Last December, he launched Space Force as a branch of the US military, saying “space is the world’s new war-fighting domain”.
However, his statements have occasionally suggest a tenuous grasp of astronomy, including a tweet in which he referred to “Mars (of which the Moon is a part)”.