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NEW YORK: The new space race is upon us and the Moon will soon be heavily populated. According to the American space agency NASA, the year 2022 will be a historic year, ushering in a “new era of lunar exploration”.
“There’s a moon rush” and “everyone is going to the moon,” The Economist recently said. But this new lunar race, though hopeful, is full of worry and apprehension due to fierce competition and superpower rivalry.
The heavy traffic in space this year, especially around the moon, is reminiscent of the 1960s and the Cold War when space was the new battleground between the competing visions of the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Soviets took an early lead, putting the first satellite into orbit in 1957, the first probe to the lunar surface in 1959 and the first man in space in 1961. But with US President John F. Kennedy promising to put a man on the moon and bringing him back safe and sound before the end of the decade, the Americans quickly took the lead.
By 1969, the United States had succeeded, making Neil Armstrong the first human to set foot on the lunar surface. But in 1972, six Apollo missions later, the program was abandoned and no manned mission has returned to the Moon since.
President Donald Trump issued a similar directive in 2017, calling on NASA to lead a human return to the Moon and beyond. He also told the space agency that it was high time a woman walked on the moon.
Last year was a remarkable year for space travel, with several historic firsts. NASA successfully landed the Perseverance Rover on Mars and piloted Ingenuity, the first helicopter to fly on the Red Planet. The space agency also launched the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest and most powerful ever built.
Another major development was the emergence of the private sector as a key player in the field, offering low-cost rockets and launch facilities and even the beginnings of space tourism. NASA management is now talking about “catalyzing the space economy with public-private partnerships”.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have all made significant leaps in the past year, while a Japanese billionaire recently spent a week aboard the International Space Station .
However, 2022 will first and foremost be the year of the moon, with governments and private companies working in partnership to realize their ambitions.
NASA’s multi-billion dollar Artemis program, named after Apollo’s twin sister, the Greek moon goddess, is the largest such project in the world. After 20 years of multinational cooperation aboard the ISS, the United States and its partners are now preparing to move beyond the aging space station and deeper into space.
The moon is believed to be rich in resources such as rare earth elements and precious metals, titanium, aluminum and – that important ingredient for sustaining life – water. However, the moon is not considered the ultimate goal but a “stepping stone” to what is considered the greatest prize: Mars and beyond.
NASA, for example, believes that “the sooner we get to the Moon, the sooner we get American astronauts to Mars.”
But all of this rests on the success of the three phases of the Artemis program, which will combine the technology and expertise of the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Artemis I, scheduled for March or April this year, will be the first unmanned flight test.
The main components of Artemis include the Space Launch System rocket, which will carry the Orion capsule into lunar orbit, and the Gateway – a space station that will orbit the moon as a “stopping point” to the lunar surface and for the deep space exploration.
As part of the test phase, the Artemis I drone will circle the moon before returning to earth. Artemis II, which will carry a crew of four astronauts, will perform a lunar flyby, but will not land.
Finally, the fully crewed Artemis III will land near the moon’s south pole, where astronauts will search for water, survey the surface, and test technologies. There they will establish “Artemis Base Camp” to support future lunar expeditions. The mission is expected to take place in 2025.
In the meantime, NASA has hired private companies to send three robotic lunar landers to excavate and bring back lunar soil samples, already raising puzzling questions about land and resource ownership on the moon.
According to the New York Times, there are currently nine lunar missions underway by various countries and private companies that “may try to orbit or land on the moon” in 2022. Five of them are sponsored by The NASA.
Russia plans to launch five spacecraft in 2022, two of which will include manned missions and three cargo missions to the ISS. They are also working with China on a new space station, the International Lunar Research Station, slated for launch in 2027. The collaboration would be a direct response to their exclusion from the Artemis program.
Russia is set to launch the Luna-25 lander in October, making it the first Russian moon landing since Luna-24 in 1976. India will also attempt to land on the moon in the third quarter of 2022 after the failed its mission in 2019 when its lander, Chandrayaan-2, crashed on the surface.
Japan, meanwhile, plans to send its Mission 1 lander to the Moon in the second half of 2022, with two robots on board. One of them is the Rashid rover, developed by the United Arab Emirates.
China kicked off 2022 by launching a 2D Long March rocket, which would be one of 40 Chinese Long March rocket missions planned for 2022. China has also pledged to complete its Tiangong space station this year.
All this space traffic and competing missions to the Moon will undoubtedly intensify existing rivalries and create new possibilities for confrontation.
Currently, only two treaties govern the behavior of states in outer space. These include the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1979 Moon Treaty. Both seem ominously outdated in an increasingly busy space market.
The Moon Treaty, in particular, has been ratified by only 18 states, including four Arab countries. Among the great powers, only France is a signatory.
Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, has called for an urgent dialogue on the conditions for protecting human involvement in space. The Future Summit, scheduled for 2023, could provide such an opportunity to establish a rules-based order for the heavens.
Given how quickly nations and private companies are embracing space travel, and the wealth of business and prestige that will come with it, competitors will likely be well out of the starting block by the time the rules of the new race to space will even have been established.