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Race back to the moon deepens US-China rift

The trend: The latest chapter of Space Age 2.0 involves plans for near-term moon trips to scope out billions of dollars’ worth of lunar resources.

  • With SpaceX a key partner, NASA is planning to send humans to the moon in 2025 as part of its Artemis mission to commercialize the moon and use it as a stepping stone to Mars, per Gizmodo.
  • China and Russia are collaborating on a similar mission to the moon’s south pole in 2026, with additional plans for a base and space station in lunar orbit, per The Conversation.
  • Additionally, Japan, South Korea, and India are also planning their own lunar missions, per Bloomberg.
  • At the same time, 19 countries have joined the US’s proposed Artemis Accords, which would govern lunar activities, including allowing nations to carve out designated areas as “safety zones,” per Bloomberg.
  • China and Russia oppose the Artemis Accords, reportedly citing it as an excuse for a lunar land grab, and are inviting other countries to join their International Lunar Research Station project instead.

What’s the draw? With natural resources becoming scarcer and habitability diminishing on Earth, the rest of the solar system represents a new frontier for economic growth.

  • There’s a theory that the moon has an abundance of helium-3, a non-radioactive isotope that could be used in place of uranium to fuel nuclear power plants. For context, 3 tablespoons of helium-3 is equivalent to 5,000 tons of coal, per Bloomberg.
  • Research indicates there’s water under the moon’s surface. If hydrogen were extracted from the water, it could power missions to Mars and beyond.
  • In the not-so-distant past, the US reportedly had a secret program that explored the possibility of using nuclear bombs to tunnel into the moon to mine rare metals.

The opportunity: Finding minerals and other energy resources could be a game-changer for solving clean energy challenges on Earth. It could also help provide more sustainable power for further space exploration.

The problem: The entrance of private companies in space is triggering tension in an increasingly crowded orbit.

  • With China accusing the US of trying to create a space-based NATO as well as filing a UN complaint against the US over a SpaceX satellite getting too close to its space station, per Bloomberg, the outlook for lunar peace is dim. And a lack of international cooperation in space might spark conflict that could further spill over on Earth.
  • Additionally, nations at odds over resource extraction could diminish the likelihood of responsible stewardship and conservation in space.
  • However, just as the private sector played a major role in global interdependence by encouraging and facilitating trade, so too could it help bring nations together in mutually beneficial space treaties.