‘Persian Gulf of the Solar System’ – US and China speeding up race to moon to hunt ‘super weapon’?
Natural resources in space worth billions, if not trillions of dollars, are on the verge of contention between the United States and China. The two superpowers are aggressively vying for dominance in space and at the center of this rivalry is the ongoing race to mine the Moon for valuable minerals.
The race is almost reminiscent of the Cold War era of Sputnik and Apollo when the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) dominated space activities as an extension of their geopolitical rivalry on the ground.
Despite all the tensions, the United States and the USSR managed to find a common set of rules at the UN and even cooperated in several space projects. However, the United States and China cannot even agree on the basic principles to govern the next generation of space activities.
Space Blocks in the Post-Cold War Era
In the post-Cold War era, countries with common interests on the ground began to form ‘space blocks’ to pursue specific mission objectives, such as the African Space Agency, with 55 Member States, and the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency, with seven Member States and the Arab Space Coordination Group with 12 Middle Eastern Member States.
These groups allow nations to work closely with others in their bloc. However, the blocks also compete with each other. Two recent space blocs – the Artemis Accords and the Sino-Russian Lunar Accord are examples of such competition.
The Artemis Accords were launched in October 2020 and currently include 19 countries, four of which – Romania, Colombia, Bahrain and Singapore – signed up after President Putin moved to invade Ukraine.
Underscoring the divide, Ukraine was one of the first members of the Artemis club after signing on to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government at the end of 2020.
The group aims to send a manned mission to the Moon by 2025 and establish a guiding framework for exploration and mining on the Moon, Mars and beyond. The mission intends to build a research station at the south pole of the Moon with a support lunar space station called the Gateway.
The Artemis Accords are part of a Biden administration effort to establish “a broader and more comprehensive set of standards” for space, Vice President Kamala Harris said in an April 18 speech at the Vandenberg. Space Force Base, about 250 kilometers northwest of Los Angeles.
“As we move forward, we will remain focused on writing new rules of the road to ensure that all space activities are conducted in a responsible, peaceful and sustainable manner,” she said. “The United States is committed to leading the way and leading by example.”
Meanwhile, China and Russia are jointly promoting an alternative project on the Moon called the International Lunar Research Station. This joint Sino-Russian mission aims to build a lunar base and install a space station in lunar orbit.
Russia and China lead the opposition to the Artemis Accords, and they promised greater space cooperation in early February as part of a ‘limitless’ partnership when President Putin visited the President Xi Jinping in Beijing shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.
China suspects US-led Artemis Accords
One of the main issues for China is the provision of the Artemis Accords that allows nations to designate areas of the Moon as “safe zones” – regions of the lunar surface that others should avoid.
For the United States and its Artemis partners, these exclusive zones are a way to comply with obligations under the Outer Space Treaty, which requires countries to avoid “harmful interference” in space. However, China views them as a thinly disguised land grab attempt that violates international law.
“It’s time for the United States to wake up and smell the coffee,” proclaimed the official China Daily in a January editorial criticizing how NASA “invented” the concept of safe zones to allow governments or companies to reserve areas of the Moon. “The world is no longer interested in its divisive and hegemonic plans.”
China wants any regulations to be settled at the UN, where it can count on the support of a wider group of countries that want friendly relations with the world’s second-largest economy.
Beijing’s suspicions are understandable as the US Congress passed a law in 2011 banning NASA from interacting with its Chinese counterpart. The United States even banned China from participating in the International Space Station.
The move prompted Beijing to build its own Tiangong space station, which is expected to be completed this year, making China the only country to operate its space station.
China became the first country to send a probe to the far side of the Moon in 2019, and last year became only the second country after the United States to land a rover on Mars.
While defending the Artemis program in May 2020, Bill Nelson, the NASA Administrator, displayed a photo of the Chinese Mars rover to the House Appropriations Committee while noting: “They are going to land humans on the Moon. This should tell us something about our need to get out of our duff and vigorously launch our Human Landing System program.
Abundance of helium-3 on the Moon
China released a white paper on its space program in January, saying it plans to launch a robotic lunar mission around 2025. The chief designer of China’s first lunar probe, Ye Peijian, said China may be able to to send astronauts to the Moon for the first time by 2030.
Moon is believed to contain large amounts of helium-3, an isotope potentially useful as an alternative to uranium for nuclear power plants because it is not radioactive.
Helium-3 is emitted by the Sun, which is carried by solar winds throughout the solar system but is repelled by Earth’s strong magnetic field, with only a tiny amount entering the atmosphere.
Whereas on the Moon, where the magnetic field is weak and the atmosphere extremely thin, helium-3 is deposited in large quantities, which makes it 100 times more abundant on the Moon than on Earth.
Fusion reactor technology itself has faced various hurdles for decades, but some say a large supply of helium-3 could be a game-changer.
China’s state-owned CGTN said in 2019 that the Moon is “sometimes called the Persian Gulf of the solar system”, with experts estimating that 5,000 tons of coal could be replaced by about three tablespoons of helium-3.
In a 2013 interview with the BBC, Chinese scientist Ouyang Ziyuan estimated that the Moon’s helium-3 resources could meet human energy demands for at least about 10,000 years.
Apart from this, CGTN also noted the presence of other natural resources like rare earth elements, titanium and uranium. Chinese researchers are already exploring moon rocks that were brought back to Earth in late 2020 by one of China’s moon missions.
“Outer space contains virtually unlimited amounts of energy and raw materials, from helium-3 fuel on the Moon for clean fusion reactors to heavy metals and volatile gases from asteroids, which can be harvested for use on Earth and in space,” the former space CIA said. analyst Tim Chrisman Told the Jerusalem Post in November 2021.
Chrisman believes that China will use whatever resources it can acquire to the “detriment of its adversaries, competitors and bystanders”. He compared the Sino-American race for lunar and asteroid mining to the race between the United States and the Soviet Union to launch “the first satellite” at the height of the Cold War.
That said, the United States seems to be ahead for now in conquering nations to its interpretation of the rules for operating in space. As the Artemis Accords gain new signatories, China and Russia seek to add more nations to their bloc.
In March, Chinese state media reported that negotiations were underway with the European Space Agency (ESA), Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to participate in the rival moon base; however, it is likely that the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war will likely make the project much less attractive to some nations.
As the Eurasian Times reported in March, ESA has already suspended plans to send a Russian-made lander to Mars in September or October after UK-based satellite operator OneWeb Ltd, has canceled plans to launch its satellites into low Earth orbit. aboard Russian rockets.