The new rush to the Moon has countries on the edge as nations pour in money and resources to return to Earth's natural satellite

The Moon, a natural satellite, that has always been at the centre of our cosmic curiosity is now suddenly at the centre of a new space rush. This rush, more intense than the one during the Cold War, is due to global technological advancement with efforts underway to find new minerals, resources and to look for answers to our origin.

Several countries, including India and China are in a fast-paced race to be the first to make new discoveries on the lunar surface, which has been bruised and battered by billions of years of radiation and surface impact events. Apart from numerous probes, just a handful of humans have walked on the Moon, all men. So far, 24 humans have visited this massive landmass, 12 have walked on it.

While India is planning to send the Chandrayaan-3 rover, the US, China, and Europe have renewed their focus on the lunar surface.

Scientists believe that the moon is likely to have vast reserves of rare-Earth metals.

Why This New Obsession With Moon?

The renewed efforts towards reaching the Moon consist of a sole purpose to build stations and a permanent presence on Earth’s natural satellite. The Moon could offer a significant piece of real estate that acts as a base to be used for further exploration to other planets, the first stop being Mars. A number of studies suggest that big rare-Earth metals present under the lunar regolith could be mined to boost tech demands back home.

Any country that is the first to set up a lunar base will likely have dominance in the new space race that has seen everything from the creation of a new branch of armed forces to testing anti-satellite missiles. While for some countries it's about dominance, for others it's part of a powerful ideological and expansionist tool to further their national cause.

Meanwhile, the Moon could offer significant financial gains for many including private bigwigs such as SpaceX, Airbus, and Boeing that are in the space business. According to a report in Time magazine, space-based businesses currently contribute $350 billion dollars to global GDP. This contribution is projected to jump to $1.4 trillion by 2040.

Graphic: Rahul Gupta/India Today

India’s Return With lessons From Chandrayan-2

Known for its affordable and cost-efficient missions, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is set to return to the Moon with Chandrayaan-3, after its unsuccessful attempt to land a rover on the dark side of the Moon with Chandrayaan-2.

The launch, which is delayed, is now set for 2022.

The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft will carry a lander and a rover and plans to use the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter already hovering in Moon’s orbit. ISRO had immense success with Chandrayaan-1 as the Moon Impact Probe detected water in vapour form in trace amounts. The discovery was corroborated by the JPL-Brown University payload Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) that confirmed that the formation of Hydroxyl ions and water molecules on the lunar surface is an ongoing process.

Graphic: Rahul Gupta/India Today

With Chandrayaan-3, ISRO aims to further the study of the lunar surface, focussing on the dark side of the Moon that has not seen sunlight in billions of years. The area is being believed to likely have ice and vast mineral reserves.

With Artemis, US Plans To Return To Lunar Surface

The United States has been the most successful when it comes to lunar missions. Fuelled by the Cold War, the US's lunar mission was launched after the Soviet Union beat the Americans in sending the first man into Outer Space. The Moon landing, championed by Nasa, under Neil Armstrong, became one of the biggest events watched globally as two American astronauts planted the first step on the lunar regolith. The Apollo missions were the cornerstone of the global push to outer space exploration that led to interplanetary missions.

In 2020, the US renewed its approach to the Moon, which had been on the back burner following the end of the Apollo Programme with Apollo 17 in 1972. Nasa is now planning to go back to the Moon and stay on the lunar surface. The Artemis mission, named after the goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology, will see the first woman and the next man returning to the lunar surface and “develop a sustainable human presence on the Moon and set the stage for further human exploration to Mars". The first mission known as Artemis-I is on track for 2021 without astronauts; Artemis-II will fly with a crew in 2023.

China Is Here To Stay

When Chang-e 5 touched down in China’s Inner Mongolia region, the sample casing contained 4 pounds of lunar material, the first samples to return to Earth following the end of the Apollo missions. The Apollo programme had brought back 382 kilograms of soil and rocks from the Moon that are still being studied. With Chang-e probes, Beijing has been successful in not just exploring the near side but also the far side of the Moon.

After falling behind the US and Russia, China has managed a permanent fixture in the race to explore the cosmos. After landing its probe on Mars this month, Beijing wants to develop a lunar presence and boost its capabilities as it directly competes with NASA that has so far dominated the Moon race. A presence on the Moon will further solidify its agenda to push for missions far out into open space.

China is in a fast paced race with the US and Russia to the Moon

China now plans to build a base on the Moon, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) that will be developed jointly with Russia’s ROSCOSMOS to “strengthen scientific research exchanges, and promote humanity’s exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purpose". The CNSA while releasing the memorandum had said, “The ILRS is a comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or on the lunar orbit that will carry out multi-disciplinary and multi-objective scientific research activities such as the lunar exploration and utilization, lunar-based observation, basic scientific experiment, and technical verification.”

The new decade could see a new era with countries collaborating to share technological advancement to explore beyond Earth's orbit. It will be interesting to see how geopolitics takes shape in the new race to our next-door cosmic neighbour.