India and the geopolitics of the moon

A year ago, eight countries led by the United States signed the so-called Artemis Accords. The agreements are an agreement to comply with a broad set of principles to guide the expansion of human activity on the moon – ranging from mineral resources to the establishment of lunar colonies. The eight signatories came from Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and United States. Since then, many more have joined us: Brazil, South Korea, New Zealand and Ukraine.

The United States invited India to join the agreements, and preliminary official discussions on the issue were held between the two sides when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House for the bilateral summit on last month. In addition, at the summit of the Quadrilateral Forum that followed the bilateral discussion, Modi and Biden, as well as the Australian and Japanese Prime Ministers, agreed to create a new Quad working group on space. The increasing commercialization and militarization of outer space has piqued the interest of Quad leaders.

As technological capabilities develop, nations are looking beyond near-Earth space (or “brown waters” in maritime parlance that continues to shape the discourse on outer space) to interplanetary probes and deep space research (“blue waters” if you will be).

These trends have brought the moon to the fore. As space powers seek routine access to the moon – as opposed to 20th century moon landings driven by political prestige – their attention has turned to what’s called cis-lunar space, or the volume between them. orbits around the earth and the moon.

No national activity in the cislunar space in recent years has been more ambitious than that of China. The Beijing lunar mission, named after the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e, was unveiled in 2007. Since then, China has put two spacecraft into lunar orbit (Chang’e 1 and 2) and landed two rovers on the moon (Chang’e 3 and 4). Chang’e 4 had the distinction of being the first to land on the other side of the moon which cannot be seen from the earth. The Chang’e 5 launched last year brought lunar material back to Earth. The last time a mission returned with moon rock was the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976.

China’s ambitions are much greater. The next lunar missions – Chang’e 6,7 and 8 – could contribute to the construction of an international lunar research station at the south pole of the moon. ILRS will have a space station orbiting the Moon, a base on the surface that will have several intelligent robots performing various tasks. To support ILRS, Beijing hopes to build a super heavy Long March CZ-9 rocket before the end of this decade. It should carry at least 50 tons to the Moon. For a scale comparison, the payload of the Chandrayaan-2 launched by the Indian rocket PSLV in July 2019 was around four tonnes.

China has also added an international dimension to its lunar plans by inviting other countries to participate in the ILRS project. Russia, once a major space player, has now joined China on ILRS. Russia is relaunching its series of Luna probes to the moon to complement Chinese efforts.

The launch of Luna-25, slated for last month, has now been postponed to May 2022. Luna 25, 26 and 27 will work in tandem with Chang’e 6,7 and 8 to undertake extensive reconnaissance and develop ultra-technical techniques. precise. moon landings. Together, these missions will lay the groundwork for the second stage of ILRS – a joint construction of the moon base – from 2026.

As geopolitical considerations push Russia towards China, space cooperation has become an extension of their strategic partnership against America. Russia is also threatening to cut off space cooperation with the United States. It is a cooperation that emerged during the Cold War and has expanded since then.

The United States, which raced to the moon in the 1960s, shut down the Apollo program in the early 1970s. The large advance of the Beijing space program, in the civil and military fields, and its growing collaboration close with Moscow shook America from its prolonged neglect of the moon. The Trump administration has announced plans to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024. The new project was named Artemis, after the Greek goddess and twin sister of Apollo.

The structure of the Artemis program is similar to that of the Chinese ILRS. It involves building a permanent space station orbiting the moon, called the Lunar Gateway, and a surface presence at the moon’s south pole that is believed to contain ice and could support future human activity. There is no doubt about the urgency in Washington to restore American leadership in lunar exploration in the face of the Chinese challenge. Like China, the United States has also decided that it cannot go it alone and is looking for partners for its Artemis program.

One of the consequences of increasing lunar activity is the pressure on the current international legal regime, centered around the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The TSB asserts that outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, “is not subject to” national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by use or occupation, or by any other means. “It declares that outer space will be the” province of all mankind ”and that its use“ will be for the benefit and in the interest of all countries ”.

The foolproof universalism of the OST remains very inspiring; but it was easy to celebrate when there was no capacity on earth to exploit outer space for commercial and military purposes. This situation is changing, thanks to the progress of space technologies and the massive investments of resources of the great powers.

Many provisions of the OST are increasingly subject to competing interpretations and vulnerable to new facts about the moon created by early actors. The breakdown of post-Cold War harmony between the great powers added fuel to the fire on the moon and paved the way for a protracted geopolitical challenge for the moon.

It is in this context that the United States promotes the Artemis Accords to preserve the OST regime in relation to the Moon and promote transparency, interoperability, emergency aid and peaceful international cooperation. But Russia and China don’t seem keen on working with the United States. This leaves other space nations like India to make choices.

The Artemis Accords would hopefully spur Delhi to launch a comprehensive review of India’s interests on the moon and develop strategies to pursue them through a stronger national lunar mission and deeper partnerships with like-minded countries. Delhi must also legislate on a strong regulatory framework to promote India’s space activity and protect its international interests. India should take a close look at the emerging challenges of the current space order, revisit some of its past political assumptions about the nature of outer space, and help shape new global standards that will strengthen the essence of the world. Outer Space Treaty.

The writer is director of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore and editor-in-chief of international affairs for The Indian Express

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