India needs to avoid Moon Trap

NASA’s Artemis programme is about returning humans to the Moon, and going beyond. As a first step, they want the first women to land on the Moon surface by 2024.

Artemis Accords
NASA’s Artemis programme is about returning humans to the Moon, and going beyond. (Photo source: NASA)

By Dr Ajey Lele, 

Moon is in the news. Right now, there are two major projects under discussion, which are expected to drive the global Moon agenda for coming decades. One such project is NASA’s Artemis Accords and the other is the China-Russia proposal to build a Lunar Research Station. Both these projects have some commonalities and some differences. Both these projects are seeking global participation. It appears that NASA has already taken a lead and there are twelve states who have become a part of this project. They are: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. The International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) by China and Russia have no takers yet.

NASA’s Artemis programme is about returning humans to the Moon, and going beyond. As a first step, they want the first women to land on the Moon surface by 2024. China and Russia are keen to build a Lunar Research Station, either on the Moon’s surface or in lunar orbit. The idea is to develop this station as a scientific base with the capability for conducting long-term autonomous operations. There would be huge costs involved for running such projects and that is one of the main reasons why these states are keen to take forward their own Moon agenda as collaborative projects with global participation. Obviously, there is a geopolitical dimension of such programmes too.

Presently, it appears that for the last few years, multilateralism is getting much in focus, rather it would not be inappropriate to say that multilateralism has emerged as a new global fad. Some such groups have been shaped to give a message to the adversaries, while in some groups adversaries have found themselves working together! Space is emerging as an important agenda for such groups. Lobbies are found working overtime to sell the ideas like the Artemis programme. Now, the question in front of India is, which group India should join. Obviously, since China is part of ILRS, there are no takers for this group. Hence, Artemis programme is getting projected as the best available option.

Now the question is, just because major powers have identified Moon as an agenda for the future (their), should India get carried away and blindly join them since ‘India should not miss the (so-called) bus’ or should India first decide about its destination and then take the appropriate bus?

In future, ‘space resources mining’ is anticipated to emerge as one of the most important issues of global contention. The mining of asteroids (and other planets) is about controlling a vast source of wealth consisting of rare earth elements and precious metals. There is an asteroid named 16 Psyche, which is known to have gold and other minerals worth $700 quintillion (a number equal to 1 followed by 18 zeros). The Moon has abundant deposits of Helium-3, while Earth has almost none. This isotope could provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor. Also, it is a climate friendly energy source, since it is not radioactive and would not produce dangerous waste products. As per some predictions, a big cargo aircraft load of Helium-3 could cater for the global energy needs for around ten years.

On November 25, 2015, the then US President had signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. This act encompasses four titles and the fourth title is about the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization. As per this act, the US agencies (private players) have commercial property rights in resources extracted from extra-terrestrial bodies by them. Two other signatories to Artemis Accords, Luxembourg and the UAE, have also a national legal architecture in place, which permits their space industry to undertake the extraction of minerals from extra-terrestrial bodies. Such regulations are in conflict with Article II of the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which the US and many countries are signatories. More so, all this is contradictory to the notion that Moon and other celestial bodies are the Common Heritage to Mankind (CHM). All this indicates that there is a necessity for having a globally accepted mechanism on the management of space resources.

The US and China are far ahead of India in the domain of Moon excavation. It is a reality that India cannot match them. It has been observed for all these years that countries like the US believe more in the ‘sale’ of technology than the ‘transfer’ of technology. Hence, from a technology point of view India is unlikely to gain much by joining any US Moon projects. More importantly a state like India, which has major space accomplishments should join such programmes from the position of strength. Unfortunately, India’s Moon programme has not made satisfactory progress. It started with a bang by discovering water on the Moon during 2008, however subsequent advancement has been very slow. India needs to first consolidate its own Moon agenda.

Presently, there is no dying need for India to join any multilateral mega project like Artemis Accords. First, there is a necessity to have clarity on issues like ownership of Space Resources, before India joins any global Moon bandwagon. Today, many of India’s own space projects have been delayed owing Covid-19 crisis and there is a need to complete them first. It is important to keep focus on priorities rather than unnecessarily getting into any Moon Trap.

(The author is Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA, New Delhi. He can be reached at: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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First published on: 11-10-2021 at 10:46 IST