Asia’s spacefaring nations eye the Moon as a tremendous strategic asset. Namrata Goswami specially for The Diplomat.
On September 7, India’s Chandrayaan 2 Lunar mission’s robotic Vikram lander came tantalizingly close (2.1 km/1.3 miles) to landing close to the South Pole of the Moon. The chosen landing site was between two craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N. Landing between these two craters is perceived to be critical in order to understand the composition of the Lunar South Pole, a site believed to be rich in resources. The initial part of the Vikram lander’s lunar descent was normal, with its engines firing to slow its descent for a lunar soft landing. However, in the final approach path, when the lander was meant to hover before landing on the lunar surface, all communications were lost between the lander and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
The Chandrayaan 2 orbiter is, however, operational and will continue to map the Lunar poles for a year. Chandrayaan 2’s lander and rover had aimed to build upon the data generated by the 2008 Chandrayaan 1 on the existence of water ice at the Pole. NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), aboard the Chandrayaan 1, confirmed the presence of water ice, with NASA stating:
M3, aboard the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, launched in 2008 by the Indian Space Research Organization, was uniquely equipped to confirm the presence of solid ice on the Moon. It collected data that not only picked up the reflective properties we’d expect from ice, but was able to directly measure the distinctive way its molecules absorb infrared light, so it can differentiate between liquid water or vapor and solid ice. Most of the newfound water ice lies in the shadows of craters near the poles, where the warmest temperatures never reach above -250 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the very small tilt of the Moon’s rotation axis, sunlight never reaches these regions.
Had the Vikram lander and the Pragyan rover soft landed successfully, they would have had 14 Earth days (one lunar day) to conduct scientific experiments before the harshness of the lunar night fell. Everything was on schedule, after a delay in its launch on July 18 due to a technical glitch. Launched successfully 10 days later (on July 22), Chandrayaan 2 entered lunar orbit on August 19, and the first photo of the Moon snapped by the mission is already with us. On September 2, the Vikram lander successfully separated from the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter. If everything had gone according to plan, India would have become the fourth major spacefaring nation to soft land on the Lunar surface, after the United States, Russia, and China. Earlier this year, an Israeli private space company, SpaceIL, attempted to soft land its lander, Beresheet, on the Moon, but failed in the last few minutes, with its lander crashing into the lunar surface.
Had Chandrayaan 2’s Vikram lander touched onto the lunar surface successfully, it would have had company, if not near the South Pole, but on the same lunar surface, if only on the far side. China’s Chang’e 4 demonstrated the first ever landing by humanity on the far side of the Moon this January. Its rover Yutu 2 has survived eight frigid lunar nights, and is conducting experiments on a side of the Moon not well known. During lunar day eight, which started on July 25, Yutu 2 discovered some unusual gel-like substance, near small impact lunar craters. The Beijing Aerospace Control Center has conducted a closer inspection with Yutu 2’s Visible and Near-Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS) since then, but have not announced any findings so far. Yutu 2 is also carrying a radar that is penetrating the lunar surface to assess the resources there. Chang’e 4 has a radio-telescope as well, placed on the quietest region of the Moon, listening to noises of the universe lost on the Lunar near side due to Earth-originated noises. As Chandrayaan 2 made an attempt to land its lander and rover, the Chang’e 4 entered its ninth lunar day.
Context of Lunar Exploration Has Changed
What makes these lunar missions by China and India strategically significant in the present context? Unlike the Apollo-era “flags and footprints” model, we are in an era where the search for lunar resources and long-term settlement of the Moon has become of priority. This aspect was recognized by PLA Lieutenant General Zhang Yulin, former deputy commander of China’s manned mission, now a senior officer with the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) when he stated in 2016:
The earth-moon space will be strategically important for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation… The future of China’s manned space program, is not a moon landing, which is quite simple, or even the manned Mars program which remains difficult, but continual exploration the earth-moon space [Cis-Lunar] with ever developing technology.
This perspective was supported by the chief scientist and designer of Chang’e 4, Sun Zezhou, from the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST):
If we want to build a scientific research station on the moon, we will need to land multiple probes within the same area so that they can be assembled easily into a complex, which requires even greater landing accuracy…So solving the challenges of the Chang’e-4 mission can lay the foundation for the following lunar exploration and future landing on other planets.
For China, the Moon is a means to an end to build industrial capacity on the lunar surface to then accomplish its goals of asteroid mining and deep space exploration and exploitation. A research base on the Moon, with industrial capacity to build and support spacecraft using lunar resources, such as water for rocket propellant, will bring down costs of interplanetary travel 22 times, compared to Earth launches. China’s main space policy making body, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), announced in January, right after the successful landing of the Chang’e 4, several follow-on lunar missions, to include a permanent lunar research base by 2036. Ye Peijan, the “father of China’s Lunar Probes” specified in 2018 that if China does not take advantage of its advanced lunar technology to stake claim on lunar resource rich territory, then generations of Chinese coming after him will blame the current generation for this failure. So proud is China of Peijan’s contributions that he is being awarded China’s highest state honor.
China has not only expressed far-reaching space ambitions to mine the Moon and asteroids propelled by a coherent space strategy, but Beijing has also demonstrated the capability to sustain a presence on the Moon. To augment those lunar ambitions, China is developing technologies like Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) that would sustain its planned Moon base. In support of those space resource ambitions, President Xi Jinping established the PLASSF in 2015, tasked with developing doctrines and war fighting capacities for space power projection. The PLASSF is equal in grade to the PLA Army, PLA Navy, PLA Airforce, and PLA Rocket Force, and directed by Xi’s space dream. One of most innovative leaders is the PLASSF deputy commander, Lieutenant General Shang Hong, known for futuristic thinking on what space means for power projection capabilities. Russia, another critical space faring nation, articulated ambitions to colonize the Moon by 2030. The plan is to build Russia’s first lunar base at the poles by that date, once their robotic missions succeed. Russia is working on the Luna 25, a resource prospecting mission, to be launched to the Lunar South Pole between 2022-2024.
Given the reality of China’s space growing space capabilities and presence, India and another space faring Asian nation, Japan, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on space cooperation. As part of that cooperation, Japan will partner in India’s Chandrayaan 3 lunar mission for purposes of resource prospecting and lunar sample return by 2022-2024, a timeline similar to that of China and Russia. Even the United States has jumped into the fray with a refocus on the Moon, and a planned 2024 landing of the first woman and man on the lunar South Pole under its project Artemis.
India, usually shy at demonstrating military space capabilities, surprised the world this March with an Anti-Satellite test (ASAT). Code-named Mission Shakti, the anti-satellite interceptor ballistic missile covered 300 kilometers and hit and destroyed a live Indian satellite in low-Earth orbit within three minutes. The interceptor missile was developed by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). New Delhi has been historically wary to be seen as an assertive major power in outer space, yet the ASAT test saw India utilize its space program for demonstrating space power, defined by Brent Ziarnick in his book, Developing National Power in Space: A Theoretical Model, as “anything a nation can do in or through space.”
The ASAT test demonstrated India’s capability to hit adversary objects in space, a capability the DRDO has possessed since 2012 but showcased only now after years of restraint. Concerns that China could hold its critical infrastructure at risk prompted India to showcase its own retaliatory capability as a deterrent to any Chinese coercion. This was the first time that we have seen the DRDO involved in a space mission, and the first time that the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has participated in a weapons test. Moreover, in the wake of the test, Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to create a draft space doctrine. Following the ASAT test, the Modi government finalized the broad contours of a new defence space agency tasked with developing a strategy to protect India’s interests in outer space wars, including “developing a range of platforms and co-orbital weapons to protect Indian assets in space and to have deterrence.” A Defence Space Research Organisation is being set up to carry out research and development, “relating to military dimension of use of outer space.”
The Strategic Significance of the Moon
A manned mission to Mars is the next major goal, made clear by NASA’s Mars focus. Indeed, the box office success of the Indian movie, Mission Mangal, which portrays the story of a successful Indian Mars mission on its first attempt, speaks to this. But the capacity to live sustainably on the Moon and utilize its resources will ultimately prove vital for humanity to become a true spacefaring species. This aspect has been recognized by scientists like the late Paul Spudis. Spudis was the principal co-investigator for the Mini-SAR experiment on Chandrayaan 1. It was this radar experiment, launched on Chandrayaan 1, that mapped the lunar poles and searched successfully for lunar water ice. In his book The Value of the Moon, Spudis specified that the Moon’s “greatest value is its capacity to create new spacefaring capabilities through the exploitation of its material and resources.” He believed once we develop the skill to master the lunar surface and exploit its resources, humanity can become a true spacefaring species. Spudis recommended the use of small robotic rovers to traverse the lunar poles to search for water ice and other resources.
In September 2018, Li Guoping, director of the department of system engineering at the CNSA stated that China will be sending robotic probes to the lunar poles by 2030. The aim of the probes, according to Li, will be to explore the lunar south pole region to analyze the composition of the isotopes of hydrogen, carbon, helium, and oxygen deposited there by the solar wind. The rover that will explore the north pole of the Moon will examine whether ice exists in permanently shadowed areas there. Those probes may be the final step before establishing China’s scientific research base by 2035.
While the motivations for Chandrayaan-2 preceded the present global dialogue on space resources, India now appears to be re-branding its Moon missions within that discourse. The lunar South Pole appears to be among the most important areas for industrial exploitation. However, this dialogue on lunar resources is not truly new for India. As early as September 2006, ISRO Chairman Madhavan Nair stated that India’s ambitious lunar mission Chandrayaan 1 (launched in 2008) would be to search the moon’s surface for deposits of helium-3, which can be used to power future nuclear reactors. Speaking at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, Nair stated, “The quantity of helium-3 is also very important as it will determine the economics before we exploit it.” Noting that helium-3 would be useful as a nuclear fuel, India’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman Anil Kakodkar noted that there are miniscule deposits of helium-3 on the Earth but the Moon, had more promise. “Our energy requirements are increasing by the day and for how long will we be dependent on terrestrial fuels? We have to look at external sources.”
India’s former president and aerospace engineer, APJ Abdul Kalam, in a 2008 essay titled “The Future of Space Exploration and Human Development,” believed that if Earth had to sustain a population of 9 billion by 2050, then investing in space resources like space-based solar power is the only answer, especially when Earth-based fossil fuels run out. The question remains: With spacefaring nations seriously developing the skill to exploit such space resources, are we prepared with the right legal framework about ownership issues? As China’s Chang’e 4 continues to explore the lunar far side, and India’s Chandrayaan 2 came very close to land near the lunar South Pole, such questions need serious and urgent policy consideration.
Dr. Namrata Goswami is a senior analyst and author. Her work on “Outer Space and Great Powers” was supported by the MINERVA Initiative Grant for Social Science Research. Currently, she is working on a book on “Great Powers and Resource Nationalism in Space” to be published by Lexington Press, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield. All views expressed here are her own.