Jan 10, 2023 - Science

The power center in space moves to the Moon

Illustration of the moon shaped like a target

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Companies and countries are doubling down on their efforts to establish themselves on and around the Moon, where geopolitical lines are being drawn.

Why it matters: The International Space Station has been at the center of geopolitical power in space for decades, but that is changing as the station winds down and the Moon emerges as a high-stakes destination for nations and companies.

  • Operating on the Moon is technically challenging and expensive — but the payoff in national prestige and potential economic benefits for companies and countries that can establish themselves on the lunar surface could make it worth it.

Between the lines: Longstanding alliances in space are now being re-drawn.

  • China and Russia are planning to build a research station on the Moon in the coming years as NASA's Artemis program works to send astronauts back to the lunar surface as soon as 2025.
  • More than 20 nations have now signed on to the Artemis Accords governing exploration of the Moon with NASA, but China and Russia are not among them and are creating a parallel track to exploration and stoking competition.

The intrigue: NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a story published by Politico on Jan. 1 that the U.S. is in a "space race" to the the Moon with China.

  • “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.’”
  • The question of "territory" and ownership on the Moon is a somewhat murky one. The UN's Outer Space Treaty — which both the U.S. and China are party to — forbids nations from laying claim to all or part of the Moon. The Artemis Accords also recognize that historical sites and artifacts on the Moon should be protected.
  • But the Outer Space Treaty doesn't prevent nations from building non-military structures or bases on the lunar surface.

The high-stakes rhetoric highlights the deep divisions between some of the most powerful nations aiming to leave their mark on the Moon.

  • "We'll probably see a lot more of that, which I don't think is helpful," the Secure World Foundation's Victoria Samson tells Axios.
  • The U.S. and China will likely at least have to share information with one another about landing sites, the dust environment and mission timing in order to keep everyone safe, Samson added.
  • Both NASA and China are looking at similar parts of the Moon for their human landings in the coming years. China is planning to land people on the lunar surface by the end of the decade

The big picture: Private companies are also working to make it to the Moon this year and potentially begin to build a lunar economy that could be worth billions of dollars in the coming decades.

  • No private company has successfully soft-landed on the Moon before, but there are multiple companies attempting to this year.
  • SpaceX launched the Japanese company ispace's lander to the Moon last year, and the spacecraft is set to reach lunar orbit in April, with plans to land on the Moon and then deploy a rover among other payloads.
  • Two other missions — from Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines — are set to launch this year, carrying payloads for NASA.

What to watch: NASA's huge Moon win in 2022 was the space agency's successful Artemis I mission sending an uncrewed Orion capsule around the Moon after launching aboard the Space Launch System rocket for the first time.

  • No SLS launches are expected this year, but these years between launches will ultimately decide when NASA will launch a crewed mission to the Moon.
  • Companies like SpaceX are building key components of the Artemis program — like spacesuits and a human-rated lunar lander — so technical progress will need to be made this year in order to make the 2025 landing deadline.
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