By Dr Ajey Lele,
The moon is in the news. Right now, two major projects are under discussion, which are expected to drive the global lunar agenda in the coming decades. One such project is NASA’s Artemis agreements, and the other is the proposal between China and Russia to build a lunar research station. Both of these projects have some common features and some differences. Both of these projects seek global participation. It seems that NASA has already taken the lead and there are twelve states that have become part of this project. They are: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. The International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in China and Russia has not yet taken any.
NASA’s Artemis program is about returning humans to the moon and moving on. As a first step, they want the first women to land on the moon’s surface by 2024. China and Russia are eager to build a lunar research station, either on the moon’s surface or in the moon’s orbit. The idea is to develop this station as a scientific base with the ability to perform long-term autonomous operations. There would be enormous costs associated with running such projects, and this is one of the main reasons why these states are eager to pursue their own Moon agenda as collaborative projects with global participation. Of course, there is also a geopolitical dimension to such programs.
At the moment, it seems that multilateralism has been gaining a lot of focus in the last few years, rather it would not be inappropriate to say that multilateralism has emerged as a new global fashion. Some such groups have been formed to give a message to the opponents, while in some groups opponents have found themselves working together! Space appears to be an important agenda for such groups. There are lobbies that work overtime to sell the ideas as the Artemis program. Now the question before India is which group India should join. Of course, since China is part of the ILRS, there are no participants in this group. Therefore, the Artemis program is projected as the best available solution.
Now the question is just because great powers have identified Moon as an agenda for the future (theirs), should India be torn apart and blindly join them, as ‘India should not miss the (so-called) bus’ or should India first decide about its destination and then take the appropriate bus?
In the future, ‘space resources mining’ is expected to emerge as one of the most important issues in global strife. Mining asteroids (and other planets) is about controlling a huge source of wealth consisting of rare earth elements and precious metals. There is an asteroid named 16 Psyche, which is known to have gold and other minerals worth $ 700 quintillion (a number equal to 1 followed by 18 zeros). The Moon has abundant deposits of Helium-3, while the Earth has almost none. This isotope could provide safer nuclear power in a fusion reactor. It is also a climate-friendly energy source as it is not radioactive and would not produce hazardous waste products. According to some predictions, a large cargo load of Helium-3 could meet the global energy needs for about ten years.
On November 25, 2015, the then US President had signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. This action includes four titles, and the fourth title is about exploring and exploiting space resources. Under this law, U.S. agencies (private actors) have commercial property rights in resources retrieved from extraterrestrial bodies by them. Two other signatories to Artemis agreements, Luxembourg and the UAE, also have a national legal architecture in place that allows their space industry to extract minerals from extraterrestrial bodies. Such rules violate Article II of the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which the United States and many countries have signed. All of this is more at odds with the notion that the Moon and other celestial bodies are the common heritage of mankind (CHM). All of this indicates that there is a need for a globally accepted space resource management mechanism.
The United States and China are far ahead of India in lunar excavation. It is a reality that India cannot match them. It has been observed in all these years that countries like the United States believe more in the ‘sale’ of technology than the ‘transfer’ of technology. Therefore, from a technological point of view, it is unlikely that India will gain much by participating in any US lunar projects. More importantly, a state like India that has great space performance should join such programs from the force. Unfortunately, India’s Moon program has not made satisfactory progress. It started with a bang by discovering water on the Moon during 2008, but subsequent progress has been very slow. India must first consolidate its own lunar agenda.
Currently, there is no dying need for India to participate in a multilateral megaproject like Artemis Accords. First, it is necessary to have clarity on topics like ownership of space resources before India joins any global Moon chariot. Today, many of India’s own space projects have been delayed due to the Covid-19 crisis and need to be completed first. It is important to stay focused on priorities rather than unnecessarily getting into a lunar trap.
(The author is a Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA, New Delhi. He can be reached at: email@example.com Opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policies of Financial Express Online.)