In a celestial spectacle that had the world holding its collective breath, India’s groundbreaking lunar landing on Wednesday not only etched a historic milestone but also unveiled the dawn of a new era in international space exploration.
The Chandrayaan-3’s flawless soft touchdown catapulted India into the elite league of lunar explorers, becoming the fourth nation to grace the Moon’s surface and, significantly, the very first to do so in the vicinity of the lunar south pole.
This triumph unfolded merely three days after Russia’s lunar dreams plummeted to a fiery demise and ahead of the eagerly anticipated US and Chinese missions, slated to plant boots on the lunar soil by the end of the upcoming year and decade, respectively.
The common thread weaving through these audacious missions is a tantalizing vision: prying open the cosmic treasure chest that is lunar orbits and resources. The South Pole, rich in water ice and coveted caches of exotic metals hidden beneath its regolith, is the prize that could reshape not only economies but possibly global strategies.
Back on the home front, hawkish voices have crescendoed in recent years, cautioning against the shadow of China’s looming lunar ambitions. Even NASA’s top honcho, Bill Nelson, has shared apprehensions that Beijing might stake a claim to lunar territories dripping with resources, effectively shutting the door on US aspirations.
Hot off the press, a report dropped on Monday from the National Security Space Association (NSSA), a staunch advocate for the Space Force, sounds a piercing alarm. It posits that China’s ultimate intention is to fashion the Moon into both an economic juggernaut and military fortress, securing its unrivaled dominion on Earth.
In unvarnished terms, the report foresees China establishing an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in cislunar space, carving out a Space Defense Identification Zone (SDIZ), and declaring ‘keep out’ zones to fortify its positions. The grand plan includes resource extraction, the likes of rare Earth materials and lunar water, a move calculated to bolster China’s international clout, wealth, and military prowess.
Adding fuel to this cosmic fire, China has been stealthily advancing an arsenal of counterspace weaponry, ominously suggesting that it could disrupt operations of not just the United States but other nations too in cislunar space. This ability to throttle freedom of action at crucial strategic junctures and along the vital space communication routes bestows China with a potent tool to manipulate the course and outcome of terrestrial and space conflicts.
Meanwhile, on the global stage, there’s a whirlwind of activity as nations grapple with the thorny question of how to lay down the law for peaceful access to and exploitation of the cosmos. As Jessica West, a voice from Canada’s Project Ploughshares Project, aptly puts it, we’re at a pivotal juncture with more lunar ventures on the horizon than ever before.
India’s historic achievement is just one star in a constellation of over 100 lunar missions slated for this decade, including a host of commercial ventures. On top of that, the international Artemis missions are charting a course to construct a lunar gateway and establish a base on the lunar south pole.
All this cosmic hustle and bustle underscores the urgent need for governance. Fresh rules are the order of the day, given this galactic gold rush. Efforts are underway, including the Biden administration’s push to broaden participation in the Artemis Accords, a set of voluntary guidelines for human space exploration.
Simultaneously, the United Nations is wrestling with discussions to decipher how existing laws square up with lunar and asteroid mining and whether novel regulations are in order.
The catch, however, is that there’s no harmonious accord on where the guardrails should be set. While the Artemis Accords have garnered 28 national signatures, the likes of Russia and China remain conspicuously absent.
As for the broader UN initiative under the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), it’s struggling to take flight. The COPUOS Legal Subcommittee, with a mandate that kicked off last spring, is yet to even agree on the participation guidelines for a conference scheduled for next year.
The crux of the matter lies in determining which experts will be invited, who gets to decide, and the final say on the speakers. Christopher Johnson, a legal advisor from the Secure World Foundation, offers a glimmer of hope, suggesting that an informal working group meeting next month might help untangle this web.
The deep-seated geopolitical divides played out in all their glory at the most recent COPUOS meeting in Vienna. The United States contends that no fresh legal instruments are necessary, leaning on voluntary accords such as the Artemis Accords to navigate potential disputes.
In contrast, a faction led by China and Russia argues that not only is a new treaty indispensable but also an international body akin to the International Telecommunication Union, which governs radio frequency spectrum use.
Adding complexity, several developing nations harbor concerns that the race for space resources could metamorphose into a neo-colonial land grab, with the developed world and private enterprises leading the charge, leaving them economically disadvantaged.
A handful of countries, including Australia, are perched somewhere between, open to new norms and even legal measures but steering clear of taking sides.
The UN working group’s next rendezvous with formality is set to coincide with the annual meeting of the Legal Subcommittee, tentatively penciled in for April 15 to 26, 2024. Governance, it seems, is a slow-burning rocket, but as Jessica West aptly surmises, we’re on a trajectory to get there, one cosmic step at a time.