Next stop in Space Race 2.0 – South Pole of the Moon

Next stop in Space Race 2.0 – South Pole of the Moon

Rendering of Artemis astronauts exploring a crater on the lunar south pole. A resource rich in water ice ready to be processed?

Image credit: NASA.

A number of nations are heading to the Moon first in robotic vehicles but then to establish permanent structures. He counts China, Russia and the United States among those countries hungry not only to create a research base, but also to live off the land by drawing on a suspicious abundance of resources on the Moon, especially the water ice at the south pole.

Areas called Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) have already been identified that could be deposits of water ice at the Moon’s south pole. Once processed, these PSR-laden patches of ice could be used to support future human crews on the Moon’s cratered landscape. That ice-cold supply of oxygen and hydrogen can be converted into both rocket fuel and breathable oxygen.

Some say there is a space race underway. How bad is the situation and is there room for all or perhaps creating conflict regarding available resources, especially at the lunar south pole?

Space Race 2.0

Earlier this year, in an interview with POLITIC, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson focused attention on China’s lunar goals. He said the two nations are indeed in a space race over deposits of water ice that appear to be hiding inside those permanently shadowed craters.

And it’s true that we’d better be careful that they don’t get to a place on the moon under the guise of scientific research, Nelson said POLITIC. And it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they say: stay out, if we were here, this is our turf.

Throughout the year, Nelson hardened his point. For China to say the water is theirs, to the exclusion of the international community, is a worrying prospect, she says.

At a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing in April, Nelson used an image that depicted potential Artemis landing regions, adding: Here’s where we’re going…this is where China’s going .

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson talks about lunar landing sites as he testifies during an April House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Looking at the global lunar exploration scene, especially China, that country has already established an enviable track record. Under China’s Chang’e program, an ongoing series of robotic missions to the Moon have been planned by China’s National Space Administration. For example, their Change-5 mission brought back lunar samples in December 2020. Indeed, China recently confirmed its plans to plant Chinese astronauts on the moon by 2030.

What constitutes a space race?

However, not everyone agrees with Nelson’s assertion that what is happening now echoes the Cold War-era space race between the United States and Russia.

The race to be first on the moon was indeed a race, with a finish line and a clear winner, said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. SpaceRef.

Today’s competition between the United States, China and other countries regarding operations on the moon is not a competition in the same sense, he added.

But Philip Metzger, a planetary physicist in the School of Planetary Sciences at the University of Central Florida, said Nelson is right: It’s a race, but with a caveat.

It’s a different kind of race than we had in the 1960s because it’s not so much about national prestige as it is about the future of economic activity in space, Metzger said SpaceRef.

The water at the lunar poles is extremely valuable for making rocket fuel, Metzger explained, adding that he believes it will change how we do everything in space.

Easy withdrawals?

As for these suspicious and reachable resources on Earth’s celestial neighbor waiting to be harvested, it remains difficult to answer the question of whether they are easy withdrawals.

Can we access it? Are they accessible resources? Are they usable resources? asks lunar researcher Clive Neal of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. We won’t know until you have a resource prospecting campaign.

Neal has been promoting a coordinated international campaign to search for lunar resources for a couple of years. For now, it’s been a grassroots crusade. It’s an idea that will likely require an independent body to bring together multiple datasets.

We’re going to a place, the lunar south pole, that we’ve never been to before, Neal said SpaceRef. Science is starting to move to the fore. Science enables exploration Exploration enables science.

Moons Shackleton Crater, whose floor is permanently shaded by the Sun, appears to be home to deposits of water ice. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

What lunar locations should we explore for polar volatiles, rare earth elements, and other offerings the Moon might provide? And, given China’s progress, could some sort of collaboration be possible, or could China adopt a strategy on its own?

When China says they’re going to do something, they tend to go ahead and do it, Neal said. I really think the US should consider exchanging samples with China, he said SpaceRef.

Neal argued that exchanging lunar samples between countries is not only good for science in general, it opens doors for diplomacy, builds communication links and starts to generate trust.

There is room for more competing actors on the lunar surface, Logsdon said, if only they agree to a set of rules that ensure their competition is peaceful in nature. Taking the lead in developing such standards should be a goal of the United States.

We need to develop an international policy on how to access and share that resource, Metzger said SpaceRef. The nations operating on the Moon and using those resources will be instrumental in setting the precedents and norms that will shape the next century. We need a coalition of democratic nations that respect human rights to lead the establishment of these standards.

Antarctic Treaty

Perhaps future lunar exploration facilities could benefit from a revision of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.

That treaty was effective protection against territorial claims and declarations of sovereignty by those countries whose scientists have been active in Antarctica, Logsdon said. Could it be a precedent for future activities on the Moon? Is it possible to reach such an agreement in the coming years?

Logsdon stressed that there is little recognition that there are 70 research stations operated by 29 countries in Antarctica. They operate under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which has the United States, China and Russia among its 56 signatories.

The treaty is intended to promote Antarctic science and prohibits new claims to sovereignty in the region, Logsdon noted. The situation with respect to the Moon in 2023 is obviously very different, but there should be some elements and precedents derived from the more than eighty years of experience with the Antarctic Treaty which could constitute a starting point for the development of an updated international regime for the future lunar operations.

New sphere of human activity

Last November, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released the first National Cislunar Science and Technology Strategy. That paper noted that human activity in cislunar space should equal or exceed anything that has occurred in this region since the space age began in 1957, the report explains. Many other countries and other players are planning to go to this new sphere of human activity.

In that strategy released by OSTP, a proposed test balloon idea is a US-led initiative to establish an international lunar year. This, the document points out, could enable a number of promising activities, carried out responsibly for the benefit and interest of all nations, including developing countries, while improving transparency and building trust and cooperation between lunar entities.

Lunar data centers, coordinated lunar geophysical networks, solar science, far-side radio astronomy research, these and other Moon-centric tasks would benefit from an international lunar year, the White House strategy argues.

Science is an international enterprise, the report said, and scientists have long demonstrated the ability to work across borders for the common good.

Science aside, the Moon is poised to become a central component of a true space-based economy, Metzger said. There are two trends, he noted, that indicate the lunar economy is about to grow explosively.

First, the cost of getting to the Moon is plummeting because of new launch systems on the way, he said. Second, robotics and artificial intelligence technology is making it easier and cheaper to work in space. With these already in motion, the Moon is set to become a crucial part of the world economy.

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