The new competition to land on the moon

A roar of triumph swept through Mission Control in Bengaluru as the Chandrayaan-3 lander gently touched down on the lunar surface on Wednesday. “India is on the moon,” says S Somanath, head of the Indian Space Research Organization, smiling and visibly relieved.

The sense of history was palpable — not only because India is the fourth country to land on the Moon, after the United States, China and Russia — but because Chandrayaan-3’s Vikram lander is also the first to touch down near the unexplored South Pole.

It won’t be the last. Half a century after the end of the Cold War-era space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, an unprecedented number of nations are preparing for their own lunar adventures.

This weekend, Japan’s space agency is set to attempt an uncrewed moon landing, while South Korea plans to do the same this year. Other countries such as Canada, Mexico and Israel are planning to send vehicles to explore the lunar surface. Six international space agencies are collaborating with NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon by 2025. Meanwhile, China plans to send its own astronauts to the lunar surface by 2030.

During the 1960s, when the United States and the Soviet Union raced to be the first to set foot on Earth’s only natural satellite, lunar exploration was mostly directed by governments and conducted by national space agencies. Although there were occasional technological and economic benefits from the space programs, going to the moon was mostly about national pride.

Chandrayaan-3, seconds before its successful landing on the lunar south pole
Chandrayaan-3, seconds before its successful landing on the lunar south pole. India also has ambitions to send humans into space. © ISRO/AFP/Getty Images

More than half a century later, the actors and motives have changed. While exploration, including lunar missions, continues to be dominated by major economic powers, the use of space in general has expanded to include many countries and private companies.

“The cost of space technology has come down a lot, and it’s been commoditized in some ways,” says Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a US think tank focused on the sustainable use of space.

“This is also why you see more countries exploring launch vehicles . . . (and) getting interested in space. And when they get interested in space, the Moon appears as a lofty but achievable goal.

Beyond national prestige — which remains an important factor in a moon landing — Weeden says many lunar missions aim to determine “what’s really out there and is useful.”

“Some think there is tremendous military, strategic and economic value to being on the moon. Others think there are resources we need. And to be honest, we don’t know.

pole positioning

India’s choice of Antarctica for its landing was significant. When the last Apollo mission left the Moon in 1972, scientists considered it dry and barren. But since then investigations have indicated that large deposits of frozen water and rare-earth minerals could be hidden in the cold, dark craters of Antarctica.

Both China and the United States want to use the area as a base camp to explore the farthest reaches of the Moon, with the longer-term goal of learning how to live and work on another planet. Their precious water resources, if not used for drinking, can be turned into hydrogen as fuel or oxygen for breathing. The hope is that with perpetual presence, more valuable resources can be found on the moon to support exploration missions even further into deep space.

Schoolchildren in New Delhi cheer the successful landing on Wednesday
Schoolchildren in New Delhi cheer the successful landing on Wednesday. During the 1960s space race, going to the moon was mostly about national pride © Manish Swarup/AP

“Our goal is to learn how to live and work on the moon and do science on the moon, so we can go to Mars when we can,” says Jim Frey, associate director for Explorational Systems Development at NASA.

And as the political will to spend big on lunar missions grows — NASA alone is spending about $93 billion on the Artemis program through 2025 — companies around the world are growing, too. American companies Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic are competing to operate the first commercial moon landing this year, after Japan’s. ispace failed in april.

“There’s a lot of momentum right now,” says Dallas Kasabowski, an analyst with space consultancy NSR and author of its annual report on Lunar Markets. Kasabowski estimates that there are more than 400 public and private missions to the moon planned between 2022 and 2032, up from projections of 250 over the same period just a year ago. While many of the current programmes, including India’s, were conceived many years ago, “the past two years have seen a much stronger development and commitment to lunar activities,” he says.

Cheaper, but still hard

The rapidly declining costs of accessing and operating in space and the growing awareness of space as a strategic area have helped this acceleration.

NASA estimates that the development of reusable commercial rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has reduced launch costs — per kilogram of payload — for launching into so-called low Earth orbit by 95 percent. Private sector involvement in the development of lunar mobility and communications services promises to do the same.

Interest has also grown in the fact that the lunar programs of both China and the United States are finally maturing after years of delay, says Blyden Bowen, associate professor of international relations at the University of Leicester and author of Original Sin: Power, Technology, and War in Outer Space. “Finally they have the technology ready to do it.”

The crew of the Chinese space mission Shenzhou-15
The crew of the Chinese space mission Shenzhou-15, which launched late last year. China plans to send astronauts to the moon by 2030 © CNS/AFP/Getty Images

But while the processing power packed into today’s iPhone is roughly 100,000 times greater than that used by the computer that first landed man on the moon, getting to the moon is still risky business. “Space is a place of broken dreams and broken promises,” Bowen says. “It’s still very difficult to do everything right, right now, today.”

There is no satellite navigation system to guide a spacecraft, and no atmosphere to slow a craft descending at very high speeds toward the lunar surface. The Moon is full of craters and debris, and sensors can easily misread the shadows they cast.

India was successful this week, but only after a previous mission failed in 2019. Days before the Chandrayaan-3 landing, the Russian Luna-25 lander went out of control and crashed.

Yuri Borisov, head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, blamed the country’s 50-year halt to the lunar program for the failure. “The invaluable experience accumulated by our predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s was practically lost while the program was suspended,” he said.

But the dangers of failure have not discouraged China, the United States, or those like India who seek the prestige that a successful lunar mission brings. Nor do they seem bothered by the uncertainty of what these costly projects might achieve. For many, the biggest attraction is the first mover advantage in a world where the potential is still unknown.

“If you were a big power on the moon, you would have a lot of influence in determining the details of managing the moon,” Bowen says. “The management of the Moon will be the basis for everything else that may follow for the next hundred years and….if the Moon becomes somewhat more economically feasible, you are already on the ground floor.

Lunar rule

It was the fear of losing to China that prompted the United States to refocus its space exploration efforts away from Mars and back to the moon in 2017. Within two years, China had demonstrated its capability on the moon with the world’s first successful landing on the far side of the moon. the moon.

Now China and the United States are targeting Antarctica and even some of the landing sites themselves, and their plans have raised concerns about potential conflict.

An image of the moon taken during NASA's Artemis I mission last year
An image of the moon taken last year during NASA’s Artemis I mission. The Artemis program aims to return humans to the moon by 2025 © NASA/Cover Images/ Reuters

“The dominant power will be able to thwart the ambitions of others by occupying and attempting to control territory,” says Tim Marshall in his book on power and politics in space. The future of geography. “The first to prove himself will be the first to reach the potential wealth of the moon.”

NASA chief Bill Nelson warned earlier this year that China might start claiming territory on the Moon under the guise of scientific research, a claim the Chinese have denied.

But his comments highlighted the urgent need for new international guidelines for lunar exploitation if planned lunar missions are to succeed peacefully. The 1979 Moon Convention has not been ratified by Russia, China or the United States, which instead set up their own rules known as the Artemis Accords. Neither China nor Russia signed the agreements.

“It will be very important that all countries going to the moon demand a set of rules, and that they are implemented well,” says David Aveno, CEO of aerospace engineering firm Argotech, which has ambitions to develop a thriving business on the lunar surface.

But the competition has already begun. It is no longer limited to the United States and China only. India, too, has ambitions to send humans into space, and its low-cost approach has proven very successful so far. The Chandrayaan-3 mission reportedly cost $73 million, a fraction of the cost of other landings.

India’s 54-year-old space program was originally focused on domestic development, helping to build communications infrastructure, and improve crop monitoring and cyclone warning systems. But its priorities have changed with the rise of China.

Beijing’s first anti-satellite missile test in 2007 “led to a unanimous consensus that India needs to do something about protecting its own assets in space,” says Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, an analyst at the Observer think tank in New Delhi. India finally tested its anti-satellite missile in 2019.

Sriharikota Space Centre, India
Sriharikota Space Centre, India. The country began its space program more than 50 years ago, originally focusing on communications infrastructure © ISRO/EYEPRESS/ Reuters

India has also sought to counter China’s might by forging partnerships for space exploration, including possible future missions to the moon with Japan and to Venus with France.

And along the way, it has built up a significant capacity in space. “India is not a new space power. It launched its own satellite rocket for the first time in 1980,” says Bowen.

A successful mission this week will bolster Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to portray India as a major global power in economic, technological and military terms under his premiership, with the G-20 leaders summit in New Delhi next month and national elections in 2024.

By contrast, the Luna-25 failure cast a shadow on Russia’s credibility as a space power. “Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen a lot of reasons to be concerned about the health and vitality of the Russian space programme,” says Weeden of the SWF. “I can’t say that Russia’s space program is over, but it is on a downward trajectory while India’s program is up.”

Bowen points out that in all the key areas needed to project power in space – infrastructure, economic services and military intelligence – India is self-sufficient.

“So, if they want to do a strong program of lunar exploration – yes it will take time and money – but they can do it.”

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