(ORDO NEWS) — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently raised concerns about China’s space goals and, in particular, that China would somehow claim the Moon and prevent other countries from exploring it.
In an interview with a German newspaper, Nelson warned: “We should be very concerned that China is landing on the moon and saying, ‘Now it’s ours, and you stay away.’ China immediately denounced these claims as “false”.
This spat between the NASA administrator and Chinese government officials comes at a time when both countries are actively working on moon missions and China is not yet shy about its lunar aspirations.
In 2019, China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. And some Chinese officials and government documents have expressed intent to build a permanent, crewed International Lunar Research Station by 2027.
There is a big difference between China – or any state for that matter – setting up a lunar base and actually “capturing” the moon.
As two scientists who study China’s space security and space program, we believe that neither China nor any other country is likely to capture the moon in the near future.
This is not only illegal, but also technologically difficult: the costs of such an undertaking would be extremely high, and the potential benefits would be uncertain.
China is restricted by international space law
Legally, China cannot take over the moon because it is against current international space law. The Outer Space Treaty, adopted in 1967 and signed by 134 countries, including China, explicitly states that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall not be subject to national appropriation by virtue of a claim of sovereignty, by exploitation or occupation, or by any in another way”.
Legal scholars debate the exact meaning of “appropriation,” but taken literally, the treaty specifies that no country can take possession of the Moon and declare this expansion of its national aspirations and prerogatives. If China tries to do so, it could lead to international condemnation and a possible international response.
While no nation can claim ownership of the Moon, Article I of the Outer Space Treaty allows any nation to explore and use outer space and celestial bodies. China will not be the only visitor to the Moon’s South Pole in the near future.
The US-led Artemis Accords is a group of 20 countries that plan to return humans to the moon by 2025. which will include the establishment of a research station on the lunar surface and an in-orbit auxiliary space station called Gateway, scheduled to launch in November 2024.
Even if no country can legally claim sovereignty over the Moon, it is possible that China or any other country will try to gradually establish de facto control over strategically important areas through a strategy known as “salami slicing.”
This practice involves small, incremental steps to achieve a big change: individually, these steps do not require a strong response, but their cumulative effect leads to significant changes and increased control.
Recently, China has been applying this strategy in the South China and East China Seas. However, such a strategy takes time and can be implemented.
Managing the moon is hard
With a surface area of almost 14.6 million square miles (39 million square kilometers) – or almost five times the area of Australia – any control of the Moon will be temporary and localized.
More plausibly, China may try to secure control over certain strategically important lunar regions, such as lunar craters with higher concentrations of water ice.
Ice on the Moon is important because it will provide people with water that doesn’t need to be brought in from Earth.
Ice can also serve as a vital source of oxygen and hydrogen, which can be used as rocket fuel. In short, water ice is essential to the long-term sustainability and survivability of any mission to or beyond the Moon.
Ensuring and strengthening control over strategic lunar areas will require significant financial investments and long-term efforts. . And no country could do this without anyone noticing.
Does China have the resources and capabilities?
China is investing heavily in space. In 2021, it led the most launches into orbit, with a total of 55 compared to 51 in the US.
China is also among the top three in spacecraft deployments for 2021. China’s state-owned space company StarNet is planning a mega-constellation of 12,992 satellites, and the country is nearly finished building the Tiangong space station.
A trip to the moon is expensive; “capture” of the moon would be much more dangerous. China’s space budget, estimated at $13 billion in 2020, is about half of NASA’s. Both the US and China increased their space budgets in 2020, with the US up 5.6% and China up 17.1% over the previous year.
But even with the increase in spending, China does not seem to be investing the money needed to carry out the costly, daring and precarious mission to “capture” the moon.
If China takes control of any part of the moon, it will be risky, costly and highly provocative. China risks further tarnishing its international image by violating international law and could provoke retaliation.
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