NASA administrator Bill Nelson has used the Spratly Islands dispute to support claims of a new space race, suggesting that China could invade the moon’s south pole if its astronauts get there first.
“You see the actions of the Chinese government around the world. “They’re going to claim some international islands in the South China Sea as their own and are building military runways on them,” he said in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday.
“Naturally, I don’t want China to go to the south pole with people first, like they did to the Spratly Islands, and then say, ‘This is ours, stay away’.”
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With Washington’s backing, Manila and Beijing are in an escalating war of words over the Spratlys, a large group of reefs, shoals, atolls and small islands in the South China Sea that Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei also claim.
According to Nelson, the United States and China are racing to see who can access the water ice first, believed to be trapped at the moon’s south pole.
“We need to protect the interests of the international community… Indeed, if we do find plenty of water that can be used for future crews and spaceships, we want to make sure it’s available to everyone, not just the claimant. ”
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Potential areas for landing at the moon’s south pole and exploiting resources are limited, and it’s a very different landscape from the region chosen for previous landings, he said.
“If you look at pictures of the south pole, it’s not like what you see where Neil is. [Armstrong] and Buzz [Aldrin] They were landing, constantly illuminated by the sun and a few craters here and there,” Nelson said.
“The south pole of the moon is full of deep craters… Due to the angle of incidence of the sun, many of these craters are always in complete darkness, which really reduces the amount of space you can land and take advantage of.”
But space policy expert Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the US-based think tank Secure World Foundation, said the US and China “do not necessarily need to be in competition.”
“This isn’t a race, because it’s not just the US and China going to the moon. “Many countries go there for different reasons,” he said.
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Weeden said the moon’s south pole is a big place, with plenty of room for multiple parties to explore. “Nelson is right that some small areas are limited, but we’re still talking about tens of kilometers in size.”
He rejected the idea that whoever got there first “won” a race. “The thing is, no matter who goes to the moon first, other countries won’t stop going there,” Weeden said.
China is working on the development of launch vehicles and spaceships, among other equipment, with the goal of landing Chinese astronauts on the moon by 2030.
The Chinese-led International Lunar Research Station and the US Artemis program aim to establish a long-term human presence base in the lunar south pole region.
Meanwhile, Russia and India are vying to be the first to land a crewless mission on the moon’s south pole. Both Luna 25 – the first Russian lunar mission in nearly 50 years – and India’s Chandrayaan 3 are expected to land around August 23.
Nelson on Tuesday denied Russia’s role as a competitor in the new space race, despite the Luna 25 launch scheduled for this week. He questioned whether Russia was ready to “land cosmonauts on the moon” before 2030.
NASA also outlined progress on the Artemis II mission, which officials say is on its way to launch in late November next year, with plans to send four astronauts into orbit around the moon.
However, the agency’s deputy director of exploration systems development, Jim Free, said the US plans to send astronauts back to the moon in 2025 could be delayed because “a key element” is still missing, namely SpaceX’s Starship vehicle.
There are concerns over whether the Texas-based company’s heavy launch rocket will be ready for mission in time. Free said that if Starship isn’t ready, Artemis III is still considering flying in late 2025, but it may not include a human landing.
According to Weeden, a much more important question than the competition between countries to go to the moon is whether they share the same interpretation in international law, as existing space agreements often have very broad principles.
So far, 28 countries have signed the US-led Artemis Accords, which has sparked controversy with the provision that countries and companies can extract resources and create “temporary security zones” to protect their own interests.
Nelson said the agreements are for the peaceful and collaborative use of space.
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But China and Russia, as well as some other countries that have been excluded from signing the agreements, have expressed concerns about the agreement’s potential to limit Moon activities.
The agreements are run under the auspices of the Outer Space Treaty, which has been ratified by more than 110 space nations.
However, while the treaty stipulates that no state has the right to claim land on the Moon, it does not specify how the non-appropriation principle applies to space resources (such as the right to extract, own and use water ice on the moon).
In Weeden’s view, there is a market for the “lunar race” theory in the United States, partly due to China’s rapid rise as a space power.
“For a long time, the US thought it was way ahead of China in space technologies. This is no longer true. “The relative advantage is shrinking, and people are worried that it might one day drop to zero,” he said.
According to Weeden, there are also concerns that China – just like the United States – is using its space capabilities as a “soft power” to influence other countries and create global influence.
He said this includes invitations to partners to conduct scientific research and send their astronauts on missions to the orbiting Tiangong space station.
More importantly, a competitor can be used to attract attention and get funding, Weeden said, as seen during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“This has helped create a lot of political participation and money to go and do space work,” he said, referring to the race to the moon.
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