Many nations and private companies are focusing on the exploration of the moon because of the possibility of finding water in the polar regions of the moon.
By Kazuto Suzuki
The successful launch of Chandrayaan-2 represents the changing nature of Indian space program. From the beginning of the Indian space, it was designed to serve for the purpose of economic development as the father of Indian space, Dr. Sarabhai mentioned. However, the economic development and advances of Indian technologies have reached the end of the first phase of space program, and the Chandrayaan programs, together with other programs such as Mangalyaan program, demonstrates that India is now entered into the second phase.
Many nations and private companies are focusing on the exploration of the moon because of the possibility of finding water in the polar regions of the moon. Water on the moon can be used for human activities but also fueling the rockets to go beyond the moon. Hydrogen and oxygen, both are used as rocket fuel, can be produced as electrolysis of water. The moon rover on Chandrayaan-2 is designed to explore the minerals and water on the moon. Many nations including China and United States are very keen on finding such precious material.
Does this lead to a competition of colonizing the moon? The Outer Space Treaty, of which 109 nations are the parties and 23 have signed, is considered as the constitution of the governance principle of earth orbits and celestial bodies. The Article II of the treaty states that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” The resources on the moon cannot be exclusively owned, controlled or appropriated by any state but for the humanity as a whole.
However, nations such as China and United States are trying to explore moon only for the benefit of humanity. They do think that it is their national strategy to develop capabilities to reach and explore moon by demonstrating that they would be able to take initiatives to lead the formation of governing system on the moon, because the Outer Space Treaty does not define the ownership of moon resources by private companies. There are no rules how to secure and protect the property rights of the companies since there is no jurisdiction on the moon. So, if the US company extracted water from the moon soil but the Chinese company claims its ownership, there is no court or law to make judgement who is the real owner of the material. Thus, nations are now rushing in on the moon to initiate the discussion of the ownership rules and develop their capabilities to protect their economic interest by robotic guardians. These actions may result in a “wild west” situation where power and forces are the only currency of the governance.
Initially, the United States, especially NASA, had a plan to explore the moon internationally. The idea of developing Lunar Gateway was an extension of International Space Station to form an international partnership to explore the moon, and then to take the leadership in forming the governing scheme with like-minded nations. However, Trump Administration, under the fear that China is going to dominate the moon exploration, launched the Artemis program to land American astronauts on the moon by 2024. This changed the entire game. Artemis program overshadowed Lunar Gateway project, and its international partners were left out from Artemis.
This is where the success of Chandrayaan-2 comes into play with the bilateral relationship between Japan and India. Japan was willing to participate in the Lunar Gateway program, but it had to wait until the Artemis program will be completed. Japan has always been precautious for such possibility of cancelling American-led program and sought the possibility of other international partners. Europe was very keen on building Lunar Village which requires huge investment and heavy-lifting capabilities. Europe, thus, preferred to collaborate with Russia and China for pursuing its own exploration program. Japan, on the other hand, is interested in soft-landing capabilities and conducting exploration by robotic vehicle or rover. Japanese private company, ispace, is developing very light weight rover (4kg) which is capable of searching water under the lunar surface. India, with success of Chandrayaan-2, would be an ideal partner for pursuing such program.
It is also important for Japan and India to cooperate and conduct in moon exploration because it will give a foot hold for both countries to participate in the discussion of lunar governance mechanism, which eventually lead to a rule-making process for protecting the right of ownership of the material from celestial bodies. If moon exploration is conducted only by China and the United States, it will only be these two nations which can define the governance mechanism on the moon. Under current circumstances, it would be unthinkable that the United States and China collude to establish a lunar governance system exclusively for them, but it may happen one day if there is no other nation participate in the moon exploration. In this context, it is extremely important that Japan and India participate in the debate and provide diverse opinion in the process of governance building as civilian power in space.
(Author is Professor of International Political Economy, Graduate School of Public Policy, Hokkaido University. Views expressed are personal)