Chandrayaan-3 | A 'Colony' in Outer Space: Why Are Countries Racing to the Moon?

Chandrayaan-3's success brings back the conversation of a 'space race' between countries across the globe.

5 min read

Video Producer: Shohini Bose

Video Editor: Prashant Chauhan

At 6:04 pm on 23 August, as millions of Indians watched the Vikram Lander of India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission make a successful soft landing on the moon’s south pole, history was made.

Not only did India become the fourth country (after the United States, China, and the former Soviet Union) to pull off a controlled landing on the surface, but it also became the first to land a probe on the lunar's prized south pole.

A rugged region, the moon's south pole, is where deep craters lie in permanent shadow, and where the possible presence of ice called ‘cold traps’ could provide water, oxygen, and fuel for future missions.

Also significant is that the success of India’s space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) comes days after a Russian spacecraft, Luna 25, the country’s first lunar mission in decades, crashed onto the surface of the moon.

Multiple countries and private companies are racing to successfully land a spacecraft on the lunar surface. Over the next few days, Japan plans to launch a lunar lander to the moon, after a Japanese company's spacecraft crashed a similar landing in April this year. In 2019, an Israeli nonprofit attempted to send its spacecraft to the moon's surface, but it was destroyed on impact.

But why is everyone even running the moon race? What impact could this have?

The Quint spoke to experts, scientists, and professors to break it down for you.


First, What’s a Space Race?

After World War II drew to a close in the mid-20th century, a new conflict began — The Cold War. This pitted the democratic, capitalist United States against the communist Soviet Union. Since the 1950s, the two superpowers were embroiled in a bitter competition over who would ‘conquer’ outer space first.

While lunar research has been historically dominated by Russia and the United States, a number of countries have entered the ring in recent years.

The abundance of 'water ice', on the moon’s south pole is why it's been identified as a possible future location for a human outpost, and has only strengthened this race further, experts believe.

But two countries are especially to be watched out for – India and China, say experts.

Dr T Venkateshwaran, a scientist at Vigyan Prasar in New Delhi, told The Quint that in the last five years, there have been “revived attempts to explore the moon”, and out of seven of these high-profile attempts, only three succeeded — two by China and one by India.

“This indicates that two nations – China and India – who had merely any space agency during the 1970s have suddenly become bright stars. This is a good example of the changing equations in space diplomacy,” he told The Quint.

A Seat at the Table: The Geopolitical Significance of Lunar Missions

Dr Frans G von der Dunk, a Space Law Professor at the Nebraska College of Law in the United States told The Quint that a lunar mission was a “matter of prestige for a nation.”

“Prestige is a part of it, no doubt. But the more important part is that the potential commercial value of lunar resources is now considered sufficiently likely, and large enough to engender a feeling of urgency to want to be there first. If not first, at least early in the game, to make sure countries can benefit from such resources."
Dr Frans G von der Dunk, Space Law Professor to The Quint

“It would benefit a particular player’s economic, commercial, as well as strategic interests if they would be able to arrive there first, and then build up a leadership position in that context,” Dr Dunk said.  

According to Aniket Sule, Associate Professor, Homi Bhaba Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) in Mumbai, the purpose of such missions is to “claim a stake at negotiation tables."

Speaking to The Quint, Sule said: “If there is a discussion at a global level on space exploration and utilisation of resources, countries which already have an established presence or have sent missions to the moon will have a bigger say as opposed to those who have not.”

All three experts told The Quint that countries have better bargaining power in space diplomacy if they work towards lunar missions.

But, There's a Counterview

However, Dr Amitabha Ghose, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Planetary Scientist, based in Washington DC, differed. He said there is "no geopolitical connection to space missions."

“Each country takes up a mission based on a variety of factors including their capabilities, what their scientific community wants, their budget, and what interests them. Sure, geopolitical optics and significance play a part in this, but it is just a small part of the decision-making,” Ghose explained.

“India is not going to do something just because China or the US is doing something,” he added.


‘No One Owns the Moon’

Legally speaking, colonisation of the moon is not allowed, as per the Outer Space Treaty, explained Dr Dunk.

“Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means,” says the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 signed by 106 countries, including the US, China, Russia, and India.

But, is it time to relook at the treaty?

Vivek Doulatani, CEO of Tech startup Blu Halo, who is an expert in space law told The Quint, “Looking at the inevitability of human settlement, it has become imperative to revamp the ‘half a century old’ treaty and make it more practical keeping in view today’s situation. This is hard, however, considering the geopolitical issues. But it must be done to avoid disputes on the moon or any other celestial body.”

“The current geopolitical climate is becoming more geared to competition, even conflict (think the invasion of Ukraine, aggressiveness of China in the South Chinese Sea), and unfortunately that spills over into outer space and the lunar environment as well,” Dr Dunk added.


The Way Forward: Collaboration, Not Conflict

Doulatani explained that Chandrayaan-3’s success triggers a sense of “urgency for other counties to get there.”

“For India, this was a strategic move. This is the area where water was discovered by Chandrayaan-1. The current mission would analyse soil samples for minerals and elements. This data would be an invaluable input to future missions. If we are to create human settlements, this is the area one we will have to go to. And India is already there,” he told The Quint.

According to Dr T Venkateshwaran, from a scientific point of view, countries should start thinking of collaborating with each other for space-related missions.

“You would never think in the 60s that a superpower like the US would approach countries to sign space-related accords,” he said. 

However, Dr Dunk told The Quint, “Some of these missions between countries will be likely successful, but it will inevitably spark competition – which may not always be of a friendly nature. Whether actual conflicts will erupt, let alone those of an armed nature, is another question.”

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