India and the geopolitics of the moon

Synopsis: Delhi should take a hard look at the emerging challenges to the current space order and its interests on the moon, and develop strategies to pursue them through a national lunar mission.

Introduction

Space-faring powers are seeking routine access to the moon. Moreover, their attention has now turned to what is called the cis-lunar space, or the volume between the orbits around the earth and moon. As technological capabilities grow, nations are looking beyond the near-earth space to inter-planetary probes and deep space research.

The growing commercialisation and militarisation of outer space has also triggered the interest of the Quad leaders.

What are the trends indicating a renewed global lunar activity?

Signing of Artemis Accords: A year ago, eight countries led by the United States signed the Artemis Accords. The accords are an agreement to abide by a broad set of principles to guide the expanding human activity on the moon – ranging from mining resources to setting up lunar colonies. The eight signatories were from Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States. Since then, many others have joined like, Brazil, South Korea, New Zealand, and Ukraine.

US invites India to join the accords: The US has invited India to join the accords and some preliminary official discussion on the issue took place between the two sides when Indian PM met US President at the White House for the bilateral summit last month (Sept 2021).

Quad working group on outer space: Separately, at the summit of the Quadrilateral Forum that followed the bilateral discussion, Modi and Biden, along with the Australian and Japanese premiers, agreed to set up a new Quad working group on outer space.

Must Read: China’s lunar activity in the recent years 
How are China and Russia partnering on space-cooperation?

Collaboration with Russia:

Russia has also joined hands with China on the ILRS. It is reviving its Luna series of probes to the moon to complement the Chinese efforts.

Luna 25, 26 and 27 will work in tandem with Chang’e 6,7 and 8 to undertake expansive reconnaissance and develop techniques for ultra-precise landings on the moon.

As geopolitical considerations drive Russia towards China, space cooperation has become a part of their strategic partnership against America.

How is USA planning to jumpstart its lunar activity again?

Shaken by Beijing and Moscow’s space cooperation, USA has announced plans to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024. The new project is named Artemis, after the Greek goddess and twin sister of Apollo.

Artemis involves the construction of a permanent space station orbiting the moon, called Lunar Gateway, and a surface presence at the South Pole of the moon that is supposed to have ice and could sustain future human activity.

Like China, the US too has decided that it cannot go alone and is looking for partners for its Artemis programme.

What are the consequences of the growing lunar activity?

One of the consequences of the growing lunar activity is the pressure on the current international legal regime — centred around the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The OST says 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”.

Many provisions of the OST are increasingly subject to competing interpretations and vulnerable to new facts on the moon created by the first movers. The breakdown of the post-Cold War harmony among the major powers has added fuel to the fire on the moon and set the stage for a prolonged geopolitical contest for the moon.

What is the way forward for India?

The Artemis Accords would hopefully push Delhi to develop strategies to pursue them through a stronger national lunar mission and deeper partnerships with like-minded countries.

Delhi must also legislate a strong regulatory framework to promote India’s space activity and protect its international interests.

Source: This post is based on the article “India and the geopolitics of the moon” published in The Indian Express on 5th Oct 2021.

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