The New Space Race: Nations and Companies Vie for Lunar Dominance Amid Rising Tensions

Featured & Cover The New Space Race Nations and Companies Vie for Lunar Dominance Amid Rising Tensions

The Moon is witnessing an unprecedented rush, with multiple countries and private enterprises setting their sights on lunar exploration. This surge is driven by the quest for resources and dominance in space. As more missions target the Moon, we must ask: are we prepared for this new chapter of lunar exploration?

Recently, China made headlines with images of its flag on the Moon, marking its fourth lunar landing and the first mission to retrieve samples from the Moon’s far side. In the past year, India and Japan also landed spacecraft on the lunar surface. February saw the US firm Intuitive Machines become the first private company to place a lander on the Moon, with many more missions in the pipeline.

NASA plans to send humans back to the Moon, aiming for a 2026 landing with its Artemis program. China has pledged to send astronauts by 2030, with both nations planning to establish permanent bases rather than make brief visits.

However, this new space race, unfolding amid heightened global tensions, risks exporting terrestrial conflicts to the Moon. “Our relationship with the Moon is going to fundamentally change very soon,” warns Justin Holcomb, a geologist at the University of Kansas, emphasizing that the pace of space exploration is now “outpacing our laws.”

The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty declares the Moon as a common heritage of all humankind, prohibiting any nation from claiming ownership. Exploration must benefit everyone and serve all nations’ interests. While this treaty promotes peace and collaboration, it was shaped by Cold War politics to prevent space militarization, with over 100 countries signing on.

Today’s space age differs significantly, with not only nations but also private companies competing. A notable example is the US commercial mission Peregrine, which planned to take human ashes, DNA samples, and a sports drink to the Moon. Though a fuel leak thwarted the mission, it sparked debate on whether such ventures align with the treaty’s principles of benefiting humanity.

“We’re starting to just send stuff up there just because we can. There’s no sort of rhyme or reason anymore,” says Michelle Hanlon, a space lawyer and founder of For All Moonkind, which aims to protect Apollo landing sites. She cautions that “Our Moon is within reach and now we’re starting to abuse it.”

Despite the rise of private enterprise, nation-states remain pivotal in space activities. Sa’id Mosteshar, director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, notes that companies need state authorization for space missions, which are constrained by international treaties.

Joining the elite group of Moon landers brings significant prestige. India and Japan’s successful missions have elevated their status as global space players, promising economic benefits through jobs and innovation.

Beyond prestige, the Moon offers valuable resources. Its surface, seemingly barren, holds minerals like rare earth elements, iron, titanium, and helium, essential for various technologies. The estimated value of these resources ranges from billions to quadrillions of dollars. However, exploiting these resources is a long-term venture, with the necessary technology still in development.

In 1979, a treaty declared lunar resources unclaimable by any state or organization. However, it gained little traction, with only 17 countries, none of which had been to the Moon, ratifying it. Contrarily, in 2015, the US passed a law allowing its citizens and industries to extract, use, and sell space materials. “This caused tremendous consternation amongst the international community,” recalls Michelle Hanlon, but other countries like Luxembourg, the UAE, Japan, and India followed suit with similar laws.

Surprisingly, water might be the most coveted lunar resource. Initially, Apollo mission rocks were thought to be dry, but about a decade ago, scientists discovered traces of water in them. At the Moon’s poles, substantial water ice reserves exist in permanently shadowed craters. This water could support future lunar inhabitants for drinking, oxygen generation, and even as rocket fuel by splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen, facilitating travel from the Moon to Mars and beyond.

The US is pushing for new guidelines on lunar exploration and resource use through the Artemis Accords, which align with the Outer Space Treaty but suggest new rules may be necessary. Over 40 countries have joined these non-binding agreements, but China has not. Some argue that such regulations should be established through the United Nations due to their global impact. “This really ought to be done through the United Nations because it affects all countries,” says Sa’id Mosteshar.

Resource access could also trigger conflicts. While the Moon offers ample space, areas near ice-filled craters are prime real estate. What happens if multiple entities vie for the same location? Establishing bases close together could lead to disputes. Jill Stuart, a space policy and law researcher at the London School of Economics, compares it to Antarctic research bases, suggesting we might see similar setups on the Moon.

First movers may have an advantage, determining the size of their operational zones. “There will definitely be a first-mover advantage,” Jill Stuart says, implying that early settlers could set the standards for others. The US and China, likely the first to establish lunar bases, might shape the rules, potentially embedding their standards into future practices.

The complexity of lunar governance suggests we may not see another major international treaty. Instead, rules may evolve through memorandums of understanding or new codes of conduct. The Moon, our constant celestial companion, is becoming a focal point for space competition. As this new space race unfolds, it’s crucial to contemplate what kind of environment we want the Moon to be and how to prevent it from becoming a stage for earthly rivalries.

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