Space race; Cosmic dash to the dark side of the moon
The fresh space race directed toward the uncharted territory of the moon's dark side has now commenced, and it ominously carries the potential for evolving beyond mere resource competition into a fully-fledged space conflict.
Six decades after the Apollo moon landing, a fresh era of space exploration is unfolding, marked by a more significant number of participants than ever before. This time, participants are driven by objectives ranging from initiating a thriving space tourism industry and establishing human colonies on Mars to pushing the boundaries of our solar system.
In many respects, this modern space race carries even higher stakes, with substantial financial investments at play. While certain unsettling parallels with the past can be discerned, the world has evolved beyond the bipolarity of the Cold War. The forthcoming global order is anticipated to be significantly more intricate, as nations once regarded as superpowers now contend on diverse fronts. Countries are engaged in fierce competition to assert dominance in areas such as markets, security, technology, and, reminiscent of the 20th century, the Moon. On that note, India became the first country to land a vehicle near the Moon's south pole on August 23; a historic victory for the world's most populous country and its ambitious, low-cost space program. The unmanned Chandrayaan-3, which means "Mooncraft" in Sanskrit, landed at 6:04 pm India time (1234 GMT) to raucous applause from mission control personnel.
Russia launched a probe, Luna 25, but it crashed into the moon. Other countries have also been trying for years to land unmanned probes on the moon - sometimes successfully, like China in 2019. Japan finally caught up and sent its "Moon Sniper," aiming to become the fifth nation to achieve a precise landing on the lunar surface. As for NASA, it hopes its mission, Artemis II, will put humans back on the moon by 2024. And, of course, they're there because of the potential existence of water. If there is water in enough abundance, there could be potential for hydrogen and oxygen.
New cosmic race
The South Pole is the 'hottest' place to be on the moon right now. Craters near the South Pole are in a permanent shadow. It is essential to mention that experts think there could be frozen water there. Hence, for the past few years, it's been where many countries have been trying to go.
You should consider this- space is starting to get crowded and the majority are focused on getting to the moon. What will this new space race mean for humanity and water supply? It is important to mention that if nations aspire for a community or a research base on the moon, they shouldn't consider hauling water to space because that's expensive. That said, it's been more than 60 years since President John F. Kennedy's famous speech at Rice University, which laid out the US goal to become a global leader in space exploration.
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard - because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."
His speech became a pivotal moment in the space program, rallying the nation behind a mission that at the time was far from certain. When Kennedy took the stage that day, the Soviet Union had already successfully launched the first manned mission into space. And there was a fear stoked by the Cold War that in the competition to conquer space, the Soviets were in the lead. The US was rushing to get to the moon first, and that was all about prestige, geopolitics - who's a better country or whose system is working better?"
Michelle Hanlon, the executive director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi, suggested that with so many countries vying for a place in space right now, legal guidelines will be an increasingly relevant thing because this new space race is about resources, not prestige.
"This is a much, much more serious race and more substantive because there are resources on the moon, and those resources are actually limited. And countries are racing to get to the moon to get access to those resources because ultimately that is how we're going to have access to the rest of the universe."
The question here is – who gets to claim those resources and how?
According to Hanlon, people like to think of space as the Wild West, and a lot of the dreamers sort of think about getting off Earth and leaving all those regulations behind. There is a treaty regime that governs activities in space. They govern the activities of countries in space, and one of the fundamental precepts is that space is free for exploration and use by all. That is followed up by an article that says no state and no country can claim territory in outer space.
Former US President Barack Obama in 2015 signed a law that says the United States interpreted Article II to say territory can be claimed anywhere, but if you extract resources, those are yours and you can do whatever you want with them. On that note, Luxembourg, Japan, and the UAE all have national laws that say the same thing. Additionally, there are the Artemis Accords, which are nonbinding, multilateral sort of principles and guidelines, which also capture that interpretation. And 28 other countries have signed it.
Why is this space race different?
The expenses associated with space travel have decreased. Elon Musk's SpaceX and its reusable rockets have played a role in this, as well as the shrinking size of satellites. This results in a lower cost for launching these machines into space and multiple satellites can be deployed simultaneously. However, the indications that space will become a significant geopolitical focus in the 21st century have been accumulating for some time.
In recent times, valuable resources such as rare metals and water have been discovered on the Moon. Private companies have substantially reduced the cost of penetrating the Earth's atmosphere, and major powers have conducted missile tests from Earth, destroying their satellites to experiment with new weaponry. All of these events are part of a larger narrative that is unfolding. Furthermore, countries are interested in obtaining helium-3, which has the theoretical potential to facilitate nuclear fusion, which is considered the ultimate goal of energy production.
Earth's 'liquid gold' on the moon
The focus is on the South Pole, the Moon, and potential water resources there. Today, the focal point for India, the US, Russia, China, and other countries is water, because water is going to sustain life. For scientists, it's really important to be at the place where they're doing their scientific experiments and their research. For example, think about people going to Antarctica to learn more about the Earth or going to the Amazon Forest to learn more about how the trees and the jungle help our Earth survive. The plan is to send people to the moon for long periods, and to do that, they need to have water.
Experts explained that sending water to space would be a heavy burden, so to find water on the moon and to be able to access it opens up all of these opportunities for scientific research, creating bases, and for people to visit the moon as tourists. The other thing that the water symbolizes is the opportunity to separate it into hydrogen and oxygen and then use it for propulsion. To explore beyond the universe and get to asteroids in the asteroid belt, which have all those rare earth metals that are going to make mining on Earth obsolete, a boost would be needed from the Moon to get the rockets there. That said, it would be a lot cheaper if they could use propulsion-propulsive methods that could be found on the Moon rather than being carried from Earth to the Moon.
With regard to rockets, let’s consider the Saturn V and its critical role in reaching the Moon, with a focus on the significance of water as a resource, serving both as nourishment and fuel, which can be found on the lunar surface. From that point, we can move toward the developments in space exploration, including India's successful lunar mission and the ongoing discussions in the United States about a manned Moon mission. The recurring interest in lunar missions over the past two decades, including references to previous plans during George W. Bush's presidency, is noted.
The dynamic nature of space exploration strategies, which have shifted between Mars, asteroids, and the Moon, is important to mention when discussing the changing landscape. The Artemis program, even with changes in administration, is highlighted as a driving force behind lunar exploration. The timeline for future lunar missions, including the goal of landing the first woman and person of color on the moon during Artemis III, is considered. Also, the competitive aspect of the space race, particularly between the United States and China, is acknowledged.
The successful colonization of the Moon would grant a country or alliance advantages similar to those enjoyed by powerful maritime nations in the past. Hence, a dominant power would have the capability to thwart the ambitions of others by establishing control over lunar territory and attempting to maintain order there. Their satellites would have a direct line of sight to both geostationary and low Earth orbits. Those who take the lead in lunar colonization will establish the standards that others are likely to follow.
Being the first to establish a foothold on the Moon would provide early access to its potential wealth and the ability to transport some of that wealth back to Earth. Tensions may also arise, primarily concerning the protection of satellites. A portion of a country's early-warning systems for detecting a nuclear launch relies on these satellites. If a nation perceives a threat to these devices, it may be more inclined to take preemptive action.
Satellites play a crucial role in modern life, as they are essential for international communication networks and global positioning systems. Disrupting or damaging these satellites through jamming or spoofing could result in scenarios where your grocery delivery cannot find you, emergency services lose their effectiveness, ships veer off course, and major industrialized economies will suffer losses.
Emerging space economy
Elon Musk's SpaceX was first viewed as a revolutionary addition to the satellite industry and pioneered the development of groundbreaking, reusable rockets. Concurrently, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin stood as a key player in spearheading the creation of the 'Orbital Reef,' a space station owned and operated by commercial entities. It aimed to offer accommodations for business endeavors, scientific research, and space tourism by the close of this decade. Richard Branson's now-defunct Virgin Galactic was another notable player, dedicated to establishing a commercial spaceflight enterprise that would transport affluent passengers on a 90-minute journey to experience microgravity before returning to Earth.
Simultaneously, venture capital firms and adventurous investors backed a daring array of space startups. While investments in this sector faced setbacks along with the broader economy in 2022, this followed a record-breaking year in 2021. Startup space companies collectively secured $15.4 billion in financing in 2021, doubling the amount raised in 2020. With that comes greater potential. To understand the scope of the current space race -- and why it matters to everyone -- it's worth first considering the resounding impact of the world's first generation of space pioneers. While only hundreds of humans have been to space, the technology created to support space exploration has had a significant impact on everyday life.
While the emerging space economy is still in its infancy, we can already anticipate some of the innovations it will catalyze. For instance, the utilization of 3D printing and additive manufacturing could be pivotal in constructing space infrastructure. According to insights from the Space Foundation, 3D printing might also be integrated with advancements in biotechnology to produce essential supplies like 'biobandages' for astronauts. The deployment of robots and autonomous tools will be imperative for prospecting and gathering resources in the cosmos.
Concurrently, NASA and its collaborative partners have been delving into potential propulsion technologies that could facilitate human exploration deeper into space than ever before. This exploration includes two types of nuclear propulsion systems: nuclear electric and nuclear thermal propulsion. However, amid the promising prospects of the new space race and the emerging space economy, significant challenges loom large. One of the foremost challenges is the escalating likelihood of conflicts unfolding in outer space.
As the space economy expands, the realm beyond our planet will become increasingly crowded. While space is virtually boundless, the designated zones where humans operate are limited. The proliferation of satellites being launched into space raises the likelihood of collisions, an increasing concern by our growing reliance on satellite-dependent services. Hence, such collisions could have devastating consequences. Additionally, there is the looming threat of space debris potentially re-entering Earth's atmosphere. As we chart our course for the next century of space exploration, humanity will be forced to push the boundaries of innovation to their utmost limits.