Bengaluru/Moscow: The moon may be dead and desolate, but it is now the hottest real estate in the solar system, generating interest from countries across the globe eager to demonstrate their technological prowess and aid humanity in understanding its closest celestial neighbour.
Next week, spacecraft from Russia and India are scheduled to touch down on the lunar surface, the latest in an international caravan of robotic spacecraft that have headed to the moon in recent years. They would be followed by the launch of a small lander to the moon by the Japanese space agency in an effort to test precise landing techniques that could be used in future missions.
Private companies from Israel and Japan have tried and failed to land spacecraft in recent years. China, meanwhile, landed in 2019 and again 2020 and seeks to send astronauts there by 2030. NASA is working on its own lunar campaign through its Artemis program, which seeks to build infrastructure on and around the moon for the long term. All of which has touched off something of a moon race, reminiscent of the Cold War rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union, though far different in its scope and purpose and with many more competitors.
In search of water
Today, the goal is not so much proving superiority of one political system over another but a race to a physical location, the south pole of the moon, where water in the form of ice lies in permanently shadowed craters. Being able to access that ice is vital to any human settlement, not only because water is key to sustaining life, but because its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, can be used as rocket fuel, potentially making the moon a gas station in space and a springboard to other parts of the solar system.
With the United States "setting the Artemis strategy, we really made the moon a critical part of the strategy, and so by doing that, I think the whole world listened," said Thomas Zurbuchen, former head of the NASA science mission directorate. "What you are seeing is really the lunar environment becoming a destination and a national imperative for many countries. I am not surprised there has been such an interest."
More and more countries being able to go to the moon, land on the moon, not only does it build capacity and competence, it gets people comfortable working together and builds the scientific community.
Over the next decade, NASA has estimated that human activity on and near the moon "will be equal to or exceed all that has occurred in this region since the Space Age began in 1957," according to a White House statement late last year, which laid out a plan to coordinate scientific efforts around the moon.
Matthew Daniels, assistant director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said during a presentation in June this level of activity could reach as many as 150 missions in the next decade. And that, he said, "is a new situation for us. This is a wide part of the world is expressing interest in going to the moon." He added, "A subset of those countries is expressing a credible intent to remain or create the beginning of an enduring presence at the moon."
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Global moon race
For Russia, its landing, known as Luna-25, would mark its first attempt to land on the moon in 47 years. It is a way for the country to assert itself in a global space race and demonstrate it is still a player despite a withering of its space program since the Soviet era. Its spacecraft, carrying scientific payloads, is expected to touch down as early as Monday. "All the results of the research will be transferred to Earth," Yuri Borisov, head of the Russian space agency, said on state television. "We are interested in the presence of water, as well as many other experiments related to the study of the soil, the site."
For India, which is also trying to boost its space ambitions, its Chandrayaan-3 mission is a shot to redeem itself after a failed moon landing attempt in 2019. If all goes according to plan, its spacecraft is expected to touch down Wednesday. The efforts follow attempts by private companies from Japan this year and Israel in 2019, both of which crashed, illustrating the difficulty of landing on the airless forbidding neighbor of Earth, some 240,000 miles away.
China, the biggest American rival in space, has been pursuing a steady and largely successful lunar campaign in recent years. In 2019, it became the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, where its rover continues to operate. In 2020, it returned to the lunar surface, grabbing samples for scientific research that were returned to Earth. It also has assembled a space station in low Earth orbit and landed a rover on Mars.
Then, of course, there is NASA. Last year, it kicked off its Artemis campaign by flying its Orion spacecraft, without anyone on board, around the moon. Next year, it is planning a similar mission, but with four astronauts in the capsule. Before then, it plans a number of robotic missions, the first of which could come by the end of this year, when two companies are to send spacecraft to the lunar surface in an effort to become the first commercial ventures to do so.
Working under a contract with NASA, Intuitive Machines, based in Houston, this year moved its landing site to the south pole, a decision NASA said "was based on a need to learn more about terrain and communications near the lunar south pole, which is expected to be one of the best locations for a sustained human presence on the moon."
The mission is to be launched by Elon Musk's SpaceX as soon as November. Astrobotic, a company based in Pittsburgh, is also aiming to send a lander equipped with scientific payloads to the lunar surface later this year. It too is under contract with NASA and is to launch on the new Vulcan rocket from United Launch Alliance.
NASA spending billions
After decades of little progress in its deep space human exploration goals, NASA is now focused on a return to the moon, and is starting to spend real money. It has awarded several billion of dollars in contracts to SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin to develop spacecraft capable of landing astronauts on the moon. Blue Origin also won a more than $34 million contract to build solar cells and transmission wire out of moon regolith, the geologic term for loose rock and dirt.
NASA is also working to build a space station, called Gateway, that would remain in orbit around the moon and serve as a staging point for astronauts and supplies. The enduring focus on the moon is a significant change for the space agency, which has been given various directions and priorities that change with each presidential administration.
In the decades since the program Apollo ended, the space agency had been directed to the moon, then to Mars and an asteroid and then back to the moon. But the Artemis program, born during the Trump administration, has been wholeheartedly embraced by the Biden administration. It enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, which is keen to fulfill the NASA pledge to send the first woman and person of color to the moon.
Space race with China
Another driving factor is both the Trump and Biden administrations have said the United States is in a space race with China, and are particularly concerned about its lunar ambitions. In an interview with The Post last year, Pam Melroy, the deputy NASA administrator, said she was concerned about how China might behave on the moon, particularly when extracting resources, such as water ice. "Does it make me nervous?" she said. "Yes, especially with China."
It is unclear how others will act as well. To encourage transparency, NASA and the State Department have created a program called the Artemis Accords, a legal framework that establishes rules for the peaceful use of space and governs behavior on the surface of the moon. So far, nearly 30 countries have signed and would be mandated to adhere to a set of rules, such as publicly sharing scientific discoveries and creating "safety zones" where nations could work undisturbed on the lunar surface. India is a signatory and joined in June. But Russia is not and neither is China, which also has aims to set up a presence on the lunar south pole.
That raises questions about how they might behave on the moon. "Are people going to be open and transparent about what they are doing?" said Scott Pace, the former executive secretary of the National Space Council and the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. He said signatories to the Artemis Accords would have to provide details about their missions and plans: "Where are they going? What if there are failures? Scientific data? I mean, that is the kind of openness we want to encourage, and the Artemis Accords will be a good model for other people to follow."
Still, he said, there could be benefits to having more activity on the lunar surface. "More and more countries being able to go to the moon, land on the moon, not only does it build capacity and competence," he said, "it gets people comfortable working together and builds the scientific community."