Legal issues concerning lunar rocks brought back to Earth

The term “lunar rock” commonly refers to a piece or sample of soil from the Moon. The lunar rocks available today on Earth have three different origins. Indeed, this term is more particularly used to indicate the rocks collected in situ by space missions having brought back samples of soil from the Moon.

These missions are on the one hand the six space missions of the Apollo program (Apollo 11, Apollo 12, Apollo 14, Apollo 15, Apollo 16 and Apollo 17) having landed on lunar soil, between 1969 and 1972, and on the other hand, the three Soviet space probes from the Luna program. The Apollo 11 mission brought the first samples of lunar soil back to Earth, twenty-two kilograms of materials, including more than fifty lunar rocks. A collection then completed thanks to the five other Apollo missions that landed on the Moon: in all, more than three hundred and eighty kilograms made up of more than two thousand separate soil and rock samples were collected.

Let’s note that the Apollo Lunar Sample Return Container (ALSRC) was an aluminum box with a triple seal manufactured by the Nuclear Division of Union Carbide. It was used on Apollo lunar landing missions to preserve a lunar-like vacuum around the samples and protect them from the shock environment of the return flight to Earth. An aluminum mesh liner helped absorb impacts. Prior to flight, each box was loaded with sample container bags and other sample containment devices. The “rock box” was then closed under vacuum so that it would not contain pressure greater than the lunar ambient pressure. On the Moon, while samples were being loaded, the seals were protected by a Teflon film and a cloth cover which were removed just prior to closing the box. Two ALSRC’s were used on each mission.

The three Soviet space probes of the Luna program (Luna 16, Luna 20 and Luna 24), to a lesser extent, automatically collected a little more than three hundred grams of lunar soil samples between 1970 and 1976. Finally, lunar rocks have also been found on the surface of the Earth: they are meteorites ejected from the surface of the Moon following an impact of a celestial object on the lunar soil. During 2019, more than three hundred and fifty meteorites of this type, representing a total mass of around two hundred kilograms, were discovered.

Where are these lunar rocks?

About eighty percent of these samples are found at the Lunar Sample Laboratory in Houston, Texas, where they are stored and studied, and research has identified three previously unknown minerals, armalcolite, tranquillityite and pyroxferroite (which were however found on Earth later). U.S. President Richard Nixon also donated pieces of the Moon to one hundred and thirty-five countries and the fifty American states. Three samples of lunar rock reported by Luna 16 were initially offered to the wife of Sergei Korolev, founder of the Soviet space program. Sold for the first time by Sotheby’s for more than four hundred thousand U.S. dollars in 1993, the lot of three fragments was sold for more than eight hundred thousand U.S. dollars on November 30, 2018, during a second auction organized by Sotheby’s in New York. Sotheby’s declared that this was the only sample which was not the property of a government.

Two questions arose here concerning lunar rocks brought back to Earth: that of the ownership of the lunar rocks and more widely of the resources of space, and that of the contamination likely to be caused by the repatriation of these pieces of celestial bodies to Earth.

Can Man exploit space resources?

When the treaties governing outer space were drawn up in the 1960s, there was much discussion about this subject. The question of the exploitation of space resources raised many legal questions. Space is indeed an international zone with rules adopted by States over forty years ago. The law related to natural resources in space presents many uncertainties, because it has not been defined in an exhaustive manner. In addition, where forty years ago space was the reserved domain of the States, for a few years, entrepreneurs have been investing in a possible exploration and exploitation of space resources. This situation is upsetting the actors who were then at play which contributes to making the legal issue on the exploitation and ownership of natural resources.

According to Article I of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, must be done for the good and in the interest of all countries, whatever the stage of their economic or scientific development. Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, can be explored and used freely by all States without any discrimination, on equal terms and in accordance with international law. All regions of the celestial bodies must be freely accessible. Scientific research is free in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and States must facilitate and encourage international cooperation in this research. This Article I of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty sums up the spirit of space law and the idea of ​​an international zone where the interests of all countries and of all of humanity must be taken into account by advocating the free use of space under conditions of equality; and with free access.

As a result, the Moon cannot be the object of national appropriation by proclamation of sovereignty, nor by use or occupation, or by any other means (Article II of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty). Historically, by prohibiting possible claims, the goal was to promote peace and security in the context of the Cold War. This Article II is today a source of difficulty as to its interpretation, however, this principle does not prevent carrying out space activities and does not exclude future use of resources.

According to Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the States parties to the Treaty have international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether undertaken by government agencies or by non-governmental entities. It is therefore clear that States are responsible for the activities of their nationals, including private actors. Each activity must be subject to authorization and continuous monitoring by the State party to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

The risk of contamination

Article IX of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty relates to planetary protection and the principles of non-contamination: the States Parties to the Treaty must study outer space the Moon and other celestial bodies, and explore them in a manner to avoid the harmful effects of their contamination as well as the harmful modifications of the terrestrial environment which would result from the introduction of extraterrestrial substances on Earth. This article also provides that, if necessary, States will take appropriate measures. The repatriation of lunar rocks to Earth is therefore at the heart of this article and this problem must be taken into account by scientists when organizing missions.

This article was written by Anissa RKHAILI (Paris-Saclay).