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Synopsis: About NASA’s Artemis programme, various consequences of India joining the programme and how India needs to tackle all this.
On September 7, 2019, India’s Chandrayaan-2 Moon Lander crashed in a cloud of lunar dust no human would witness. It had experienced a “hard landing” on a desolate patch of the lunar surface. It shows the difficulties of the operation and ‘optimism and determination’ that go into India’s spacefaring aspirations.
Why there is attraction of Moon?
Firstly, Moon is barren, lifeless and lethal to humans. However, its proximity to Earth and its low gravity makes it a potential launching pad for future missions into interplanetary space,
Secondly, it enables us to explore the inner solar system as well as the vast, largely uncharted expanses that lie beyond the Asteroid Belt.
Third, The Moon is also believed to hold natural resources that could help fuel those future expeditions. For instance, the water discovered on the lunar surface by India’s previous Moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, could provide both hydrogen for fuel, and oxygen for breathing.
What is NASA’s Artemis programme?
NASA’s Artemis programme is the most ambitious lunar exploration undertaking since the Apollo missions. It plans to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon in the coming years. It will also include a massive technological effort to build new launchers, spacecraft and ground-based facilities as well as putting a gateway module in orbit around the Moon, to act as a stepping stone for further space exploration.
What is India’s dilemma regarding Artemis?
Partnering with the Artemis programme would make it much easier for India to ramp up its own lunar projects.
However, as a precondition for joining the programme, India would have to sign up to a set of NASA-defined rules called the Artemis Accords, which 11 countries have signed including Australia, Japan, Brazil, South Korea and the UK. Most of these are not harmful and related with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which India is also a party.
The most problematic Artemis principle is the one that allows for the extraction and use of resources in space. While the Outer Space Treaty prohibits claims of sovereignty in space, it says nothing about private ownership and leaves open the possibility of using lunar resources.
As US dominates the global commercial space industry, it will harvest the greatest benefits. For instance,
-In 2015, the US Congress passed a bill enabling private entities to use the mineral resources of other celestial bodies.
-In 2020, then President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing US diplomats to “develop joint statements, bilateral agreements and multilateral instruments” that would make the use of space resources an international norm.
Artemis Accords are a direct outcome of this effort.
Russia-China problem: India’s choices are also complicated by the existence of the rival Russia-China International Lunar Research Station project. Further, Russians and Chinese are also slated to come up with their own version of Artemis Accords by the end of 2021
So, we have three options – join Artemis Accords, join ILRS, or go solo.
What are the consequences of these three options and what should India do?
India may lose out on major opportunities if it seeks to explore space by itself. ILRS attractions are spoiled by the presence of China. So, the least bad option for India would be to join the Artemis programme.
Instead of agreeing to all US demand, India must
– insist on mechanisms for sharing technology and space infrastructure.
– use informal fora, like the newly set up Quad working group on space to push for more detailed norms governing activities on celestial bodies.
– India must continue to pursue bilateral space cooperation with Russia, which may even allow it to benefit from some of the capabilities developed for the ILRS project. The time for active space diplomacy is now.
Source: This post is based on the article “World Is Entering A New Moon Age” published in The Times of India on 6th October 2021.