Science and Exploration

Next Stop in Space Race 2.0 – South Pole of the Moon

By Leonard David
June 6, 2023
Filed under , , ,
Next Stop in Space Race 2.0 – South Pole of the Moon
Rendering of Artemis astronauts exploring a lunar south pole crater. A water ice-rich resource ready for processing?
Image credit: NASA.

A number of nations are heading for the Moon — first with robotic craft, but then to establish permanent facilities. Count in China, Russia, as well as the US among those countries hungry to not only set up a research base, but also to “live off the land” by tapping into a suspected bounty of resources on the Moon — especially water ice at the south pole.

Already identified are areas, termed Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) that might be repositories of water ice at the Moon’s south pole. Once processed, these PSR-laden plots of ice could be utilized to sustain future human crews on the Moon’s crater-scarred landscape. That icy supply of oxygen and hydrogen can be converted into both rocket fuel and breathable oxygen.

There are those that assert a “space race” is underway. How serious is the situation and is there room for everyone – or perhaps the making of conflict regarding available resources, particularly at the lunar south pole?

Space Race 2.0

Earlier this year, in an interview with POLITICO, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson brought focus to China’s lunar aims. He said that the two nations are indeed in a space race for the icy water deposits that appear to lurk within those permanently shadowed craters.

“And it is true that we better watch out that they don’t get to a place on the Moon under the guise of scientific research,” Nelson told POLITICO. “And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they say: ‘Keep out, we’re here, this is our territory.’”

Throughout the year, Nelson reinforced his view. Having China claim that the water is theirs, to the exclusion of the international community, is a worrisome prospect, he asserts.

In a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing in April, Nelson made use of an image depicting potential Artemis landing regions, adding: “This is where we’re going … this is where China is going.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson discusses lunar landing sites as he testifies during an April House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Looking at the global lunar exploration scene, specifically China, that country has already established an enviable track record. Under China’s Chang’e program, an ongoing series of robotic Moon missions has been scripted by the China National Space Administration. For example, their Chang’e-5 mission rocketed back lunar samples in December 2020. In fact, China has more recently confirmed their plans to plant Chinese astronauts on the Moon by 2030.

What constitutes a space race?

However, not everyone agrees with Nelson’s assertion that what’s happening now echoes the Cold War-era Space Race between the US and Russia.

“The race to be first to the Moon was indeed a race, with a finish line and a clear winner,” John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs at The George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told SpaceRef.

“Today’s competition between the U.S, China, and other countries regarding operations on the Moon is not a race in the same sense,” he added.

But Philip Metzger, a planetary physicist with the Planetary Science faculty at the University of Central Florida, said that Nelson is correct: It is a race, but with a caveat.

“It is a different kind of race than we had in the 1960s because it’s not so much about national prestige as it is about the future of economic activity in space,” Metzger told SpaceRef.

The water at the lunar poles is extremely valuable for making rocket propellant, Metzger explained, adding that he believes that it will change how we do everything in space.

Easy pickings?

As for these suspected and reachable resources on Earth’s celestial neighbor waiting to be harvested, the question of whether they’re easy pickings remains difficult to answer.

“Can we access them? Are they accessible resources? Are they usable resources?” questions lunar researcher Clive Neal at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “We’re not going to know that until you have a resource prospecting campaign.”

Neal has been promoting a coordinated, international lunar-resource-prospecting campaign for a couple of years. For now, it has been a grassroot crusade. It’s an idea that is likely to require an independent body to bring together multiple datasets.

“We’re going to a place, the lunar south pole, that we’ve never been to before,” Neal told SpaceRef. “Science is starting to move front and center. Science enables exploration … exploration enables science.”

The Moon’s Shackleton Crater, the floor of which is permanently shadowed from the Sun, appears to be home to deposits of water ice. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

Which lunar locales do we need to explore for polar volatiles, rare earth elements, and other offerings the Moon may well provide? And, given China’s progress, might some sort of collaboration be possible, or might China adopt a go-it-alone strategy?

“When China says they are going to do something, they tend to go ahead and do it,” Neal said. “I really think that the US needs to consider a sample exchange with China,” he told SpaceRef.

Neal argued that swapping lunar samples between countries is not only good for science overall, it opens doors to diplomacy, creates communication links, and starts to generate trust.

There is room for multiple competing actors on the lunar surface, Logsdon said, “if only they agree to a set of norms that ensure that their competition is peaceful in character. Taking a lead role in developing such norms should be a U.S. objective.”

“We need to develop international policy on how we access and share that resource,” Metzger told SpaceRef. “Nations that are operating on the Moon and using those resources will be instrumental in establishing precedent and norms that shape the next century. We need it to be a coalition of democratic nations that respect human rights leading in establishing these norms.”

Antarctic Treaty

Perhaps future Moon exploration facilities might benefit from a relook at the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.

“That treaty has been effective protecting against territorial claims and declarations of sovereignty by those countries whose scientists have been active in Antarctica,” said Logsdon. “Might it be a precedent for future activities on the Moon? Is reaching such an agreement in the next few years even conceivable?”

Logsdon pointed out that it’s little recognized that in Antarctica there are 70 research stations operated by 29 countries. They operate within the framework of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which has the United States, China, and Russia among its 56 signatories.

The treaty is intended to foster Antarctic science and prohibits new claims of sovereignty in the region, Logsdon noted. “The situation with respect to the Moon in 2023 is of course very different, but there should be some elements and precedents derived from the more than eighty years of experience with the Antarctic Treaty that could form a starting point for developing an up-to-date international regime for future lunar operations.”

New sphere of human activity

Last November, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released the first National Cislunar Science and Technology Strategy. That document noted that human activity in cislunar space is expected to be “equal to or exceed all that has occurred in this region since the Space Age began in 1957,” the report explains. “Many more countries and other actors are planning to travel to this new sphere of human activity.”

In that OSTP-released strategy, one trial balloon idea proposed is a US-led initiative to establish an International Lunar Year. Doing so, the document points out, could enable a host of promising activities, “carried out responsibly for the benefit and in the interests of all nations, including developing countries, while enhancing transparency and building confidence and cooperation among Moon-faring entities.”

Lunar data centers, coordinated lunar geophysical networks, solar science, far-side radio astronomy research — these and other Moon-centric tasks would benefit from an International Lunar Year, the White House strategy argues.

“Science is an international enterprise,” the report states, “and scientists have long demonstrated the ability to work across boundaries for the common good.”

Science aside, the Moon is set to become a central component of a true space-based economy, Metzger said. There are two trends, he noted, that indicate the lunar economy is about to grow explosively.

“First, the cost of getting to the Moon is plummeting due to new launch systems coming online,” he said. “Second, technology in robotics and artificial intelligence is making it easier and cheaper to work in space. With these already in motion, the Moon is set to become a crucial part of the world’s economy.”

Leonard David

Leonard is author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race, Mars – Our Future on the Red Planet, and co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin of Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration - all published by the National Geographic Society.