Space - NASA, CSA, JAXA And Other Space Stuff


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Sep 11, 2013
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"There's going to be a new world order out there, and we've got to lead it," US President Joe Biden said after Russia's war in Ukraine upended global geopolitics. Far from Earth, that transition is already happening.

The lack of cooperation between the US and China on space exploration is particularly dangerous in an era where the cosmos are becoming more crowded. Billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos along with emerging markets such as Rwanda and the Philippines are launching more and more satellites to bridge the digital divide and explore commercial opportunities.

The stakes are even higher when it comes to the US and China, which are erecting economic barriers in the name of national security as ideological divisions widen over the pandemic, political repression and now Vladimir Putin's war. Their inability to cooperate on space risks not only an arms race, but also clashes over extracting potentially hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of resources on the moon and elsewhere.

"Our concern in the West is more about who sets the rules of the road, particularly access to resources," said Malcolm Davis, a former official with Australia's defense department who now researches space policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

"The biggest risk is you have two opposite set of rules," he said. "You could have a Chinese company on the moon in the 2030s claiming territory with a resource on it, in the same way the Chinese have claimed the entire South China Sea."

At the center of the dispute is the US-drafted Artemis Accords, a non-legally binding set of principles to govern activity on the moon, Mars and beyond. The initiative, which NASA says is grounded in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, forms the foundation of the space agency's effort to put astronauts on the moon this decade and kick-start mining operations of lucrative lunar elements.

So far 19 countries have agreed to support the accords, including four — Romania, Colombia, Bahrain and Singapore — that signed up after Putin's invasion spurred a US-led effort to isolate Russia. Underscoring the divide, Ukraine was an early Artemis club member after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's government signed in late 2020.

One of China's main problems with the Artemis Accords is a provision allowing nations to designate areas of the moon as "safety zones" -- regions on the lunar surface that others should avoid. For the Americans and their Artemis partners, the exclusive areas are a way to comply with obligations under the Outer Space Treaty, which requires countries to avoid "harmful interference" in space.

To China, however, the safety zones are thinly disguised land grabs in violation of international law. Beijing wants any rule-making to be settled at the UN, where it can count on support from a wider group of countries eager for friendly ties with the world's second-biggest economy.

"It's time the US woke up and smelled the coffee," the official China Daily proclaimed in a January editorialthat criticized how NASA "invented" the concept of safety zones to allow governments or companies to reserve areas of the moon. "The world is no longer interested in its divisive, hegemonic schemes."

Unlike Earth, the moon may contain large amounts of helium-3, an isotope potentially useful as an alternative to uranium for nuclear power plants because it's not radioactive. Chinese state media in 2019 said the moon is "sometimes referred to as the Persian Gulf of the solar system," with experts believing 5,000 tons of coal could be replaced by about three tablespoons of helium-3.

While there's not yet proof that helium-3 can do what boosters claim, Chinese researchers are already looking for the element in moon rocks brought back to Earth in late 2020 by one of China's lunar missions. The moon could also prove valuable as a source of water, taken from ice at the lunar poles, to make rocket fuel that could power missions to Mars and other places in the solar system.

Beijing is upset about being left out of the process and pressured to accept principles that were crafted by the US instead of at the UN, according to Jessica West, senior researcher and managing editor for the Space Security Index project at Project Ploughshares, the peace research institute of The Canadian Council of Churches.

The conflict over who makes the rules, she added, shows the world has lots of work left to avoid a clash in space.

"I'm not sure people expected the explosion of space activity that happened," West said. "We're just not adequately prepared."