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India and the geopolitics of the moon

C Raja Mohan writes: Delhi should take a hard look at the emerging challenges to the current space order and its interests on the moon, and develop strategies to pursue them through a national lunar mission.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: October 6, 2021 7:55:57 am
China's ambitions are much larger. The next moon missions -- Chang'e 6,7, and 8 -- could contribute to the construction of an International Lunar Research Station in the south pole of the moon. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

A year ago, eight countries led by the United States signed the so-called Artemis Accords. The accords are an agreement to abide by a broad set of principles to guide the expanding human activity on the moon – ranging from mining resources to setting up lunar colonies. The eight signatories were from Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States. Since then, many others have joined — Brazil, South Korea, New Zealand, and Ukraine.

The US has invited India to join the accords and some preliminary official discussion on the issue took place between the two sides when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met US President Joe Biden at the White House for the bilateral summit last month. Separately, at the summit of the Quadrilateral Forum that followed the bilateral discussion, Modi and Biden, along with the Australian and Japanese premiers, agreed to set up a new Quad working group on outer space. The growing commercialisation and militarisation of outer space have triggered the interest of the Quad leaders.

As technological capabilities grow, nations are looking beyond the near-earth space (or the “brown waters” in the maritime jargon that continues to shape the outer space discourse) to inter-planetary probes and deep space research (the “blue waters” if you will).

These trends have brought the moon into sharp focus. As space-faring powers seek routine access to the moon — as opposed to the lunar landings of the 20th century driven by political prestige — their attention has turned to what is called the cis-lunar space, or the volume between the orbits around the earth and moon.

No national activity in the cislunar space in recent years has been more ambitious than that of China. Beijing’s lunar mission, named after the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e, was unveiled in 2007. Since then, China has put two spacecraft in lunar orbit (Chang’e 1 and 2) and landed two rovers on the moon (Chang’e 3 and 4). Chang’e 4 had the distinction of being the first to land on the far side of the moon that can’t be seen from the earth. The Chang’e 5 launched last year brought lunar material back to the earth. The last time a mission returned with lunar rock was the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976.

China’s ambitions are much larger. The next moon missions — Chang’e 6,7, and 8 — could contribute to the construction of an International Lunar Research Station in the south pole of the moon. The ILRS will have a space station orbiting the Moon, a base on the surface that will have several intelligent robots performing a variety of jobs. To support the ILRS, Beijing hopes to build a super-heavy rocket Long March CZ-9 before the end of this decade. It is expected to carry at least 50 tonnes to the moon. For a comparison of the scale, the payload of the Chandrayaan-2 launched by India’s PSLV rocket in July 2019 was about four tonnes.

China has also added an international dimension to its moon plans by inviting other countries to participate in the ILRS project. Russia, once a leading space actor, has now joined hands with China on the ILRS. Russia is reviving its Luna series of probes to the moon to complement the Chinese efforts.

The launch of Luna-25, set for last month, has now been postponed to May 2022. Luna 25, 26 and 27 will work in tandem with Chang’e 6,7 and 8 to undertake expansive reconnaissance and develop techniques for ultra-precise landings on the moon. Together, these missions will lay the basis for the second stage of ILRS — a joint construction of the lunar base — starting from 2026.

As geopolitical considerations drive Russia towards China, space cooperation has become an extension of their strategic partnership against America. Russia is also threatening to cut off space cooperation with the US. It is a cooperation that emerged during the Cold War and has expanded since then.

The US, which raced to the moon in the 1960s, shut down the Apollo programme in the early 1970s. The broad advance of Beijing’s space programme, across the civilian and military domains, and its deepening collaboration with Moscow has shaken America out of its prolonged neglect of the moon. The Trump administration announced plans to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024. The new project was named Artemis, after the Greek goddess and twin sister of Apollo.

The structure of the Artemis programme is similar to China’s ILRS. It involves the construction of a permanent space station orbiting the moon, called Lunar Gateway, and a surface presence at the south pole of the moon that is supposed to have ice and could sustain future human activity. There is no doubt about the urgency in Washington about restoring America’s leadership in lunar exploration in the face of the Chinese challenge. Like China, the US too decided that it cannot go alone and is looking for partners for its Artemis programme.

One of the consequences of the growing lunar activity is the pressure on the current international legal regime — centred around the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The OST says outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, “is not subject to “national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”. It declares that outer space shall be the “province of all mankind” and its use “be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries”.

The sweeping universalism of the OST remains very inspiring; but it was easy to celebrate it when there were no capabilities on the earth to exploit outer space for commercial and military gain. That situation is changing, thanks to the advances in space technologies and the expansive investment of resources by major powers.

Many provisions of the OST are increasingly subject to competing interpretations and vulnerable to new facts on the moon created by the first movers. The breakdown of the post-Cold War harmony among the major powers has added fuel to the fire on the moon and set the stage for a prolonged geopolitical contestation for the moon.

That is the context in which the US is promoting the Artemis Accords to preserve the OST regime in relation to the moon and promote transparency, interoperability, emergency assistance, and peaceful international cooperation. But Russia and China don’t look enthusiastic about working with the US. That leaves other space-faring nations like India to make choices.

The Artemis Accords would hopefully nudge Delhi to initiate a comprehensive review of India’s interests on the moon and develop strategies to pursue them through a stronger national lunar mission and deeper partnerships with like-minded countries. Delhi must also legislate a strong regulatory framework to promote India’s space activity and protect its international interests. India should take a hard look at the emerging challenges to the current space order, review some of its past political assumptions about the nature of outer space and contribute to the development of new global norms that will strengthen the essence of the Outer Space Treaty.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 5, 2021 under the title ‘The contest for the moon’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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