Aug 15, 2023 - Science

The race to tap the Moon's immense value

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Nations around the world are looking to unlock the Moon's economic, scientific and geopolitical value.

Why it matters: The Moon could be valuable high ground for the United States, China and other established space powers that see it as a crucial place to further assert dominance in space.

  • India and others view the Moon as a place to test technology, perform science and vault them into the rarified air of the established space powers.
  • Once there, countries and companies that can access water and other resources on the Moon could use them to create more rocket fuel and travel deeper into the solar system, to destinations like Mars and beyond.
  • Some people say whoever "gets to the Moon and 'controls' the Moon is going to have a massive political, economic, military power advantage and it's going to propel them to dominate the next century," the Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden tells Axios.

Driving the news: Russia launched its first mission to the Moon in nearly 50 years on Thursday, aiming to land its Luna-25 lander in the lunar south pole region as early as Aug. 21.

  • India also launched its own robotic mission to the lunar south pole in July, with plans to land on Aug. 23.
  • NASA and China are both aiming to send people to the same region in separate missions in the coming years that would establish a human presence on the lunar surface.

The big picture: As the International Space Station comes to a close, the center of power in space is shifting to the lunar surface.

  • The Moon is "an attractive destination only three days away," John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, tells Axios.
  • By demonstrating it can reach and land on the Moon, a nation can show it has the technical know-how and motivation to do difficult things.
  • Plus, scientists think there could be valuable water in the permanently shadowed craters in Moon's south pole, raising the possibility it could be mined and used to create rocket fuel that could carry astronauts deeper into the solar system.

Yes, but: It's not yet clear just how much of an economic or power advantage can be gained on the Moon.

  • "There are a whole bunch of other people that think there's not a lot of value there and this is mainly just for prestige and maybe some science," Weeden says.
  • And some of that science isn't assured. It's still not clear how much water is available and accessible and what it would take to create rocket fuel from it. But the possibilities are tantalizing for nations today.
  • "This is a quest for treasure," Logsdon says.

What to watch: The economic benefits may not be assured, but a new industry in space is already being built up around the Moon, lending more credence to nations that are aiming for the lunar surface.

  • Private companies are investing in the tech to get payloads to the Moon with the hope that once they are there, countries will act as their customers when they establish a human presence on the Moon.
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