U.S., China to Compete for Moon’s Minerals

The world leaders are once again looking for dominance in outer space just like during the Cold War era with one big difference. While the U.S. and the USSR had set out common rules during the Cold War years, world’s current superpowers can’t even agree on basic principles to manage space activity.

The lack of cooperation between the U.S. and China is particularly concerning in an era when the space has become more and more crowded. Countries, developed and emerging, and companies have been launching one satellite after another to bridge the digital division and explore commercial opportunities.

The U.S. and China have been building economic barriers in the name of national security as ideological divisions widen and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has made matters even worse. The lack of space cooperation between the world’s two largest economies risks not only an arms race but also clashes over the extraction of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars worth minerals on the moon and elsewhere.

While the West’s biggest concern is to set the rules of the road, especially regarding resources. The biggest risk is if there is two opposite set of rules. China could have a company on the moon in the 2030s claiming territory with a resource on it, just as Beijing claims sovereignty over the South China Sea.

Therefore, space geopolitics could mirror the competition on Earth, pitting the US and Western allies against China and Russia.

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.

The U.S. wants to establish a broader and more comprehensive set of rules for space with the accords.

U.S. Vice President Harris said new rules would be written as the venture moves forward to ensure all space activities are made in a responsible, peaceful and sustainable manner. Harris added that the U.S. has been prepared to lead the way.

China and Russia have opposed to the accords, agreeing on a greater space cooperation in early February as part of a “no limits” partnership when Putin visited Xi in Beijing. They are jointly promoting an alternative project on the moon they say is open to all other countries: the International Lunar Research Station.

One of China’s problems with the Artemis Accords is a provision authorizing nations to designate areas of the moon as safety zones, regions on the lunar surface that others should avoid. For the 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.

China has reason to be suspicious of US efforts. U.S. legislation first passed in 2011 prevents NASA from most interactions with its Chinese counterpart, and the US has blocked China from taking part in the International Space Station, which prompted Beijing to build its own.

As China has been left out, it was forced to go its own way. That raises the challenge if the world can have a coherent order when there are two different visions and no cooperation.

China has been working towards Xi’s goal to match U.S. capabilities in space. China became the first country to send a probe to the far side of the moon in 2019, and last year it became only the second nation after the US to land a rover on Mars.

On March 10, China launched a Long March rocket to deliver cargo to the Tiangong, the orbiting spacecraft that Beijing plans to complete this year, making China the only country to operate its own space station. The following month, Xi ordered officials to build a spacecraft launch site in Hainan.

As the US, China and other nations target the moon, the need to establish rules to avoid conflict is becoming more urgent.

NASA in April conducted tests for the launch of Artemis I, the first American spacecraft to aim for the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. While this mission will be fully robotic, NASA’s aims to send astronauts to the moon around 2025 and build a base camp on the lunar surface.

Musk’s SpaceX will conduct a test flight in the next few months of the company’s new Starship rocket that is designed to take humans to the moon and Mars.

Japan and South Korea, both Artemis Accords signatories, have lunar missions in the works. So does India, the largest space-faring nation yet to commit to either the American or the Sino-Russian side. Putin has also committed to restoring the moon program last month.

The efforts to extract resources from the lunar surface could start as early as the decade’s end.

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.

While helium-3’s potential is still unproven, Chinese researchers have been 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.

For now, the US appears to be ahead in winning over nations to its interpretation of rules for operating in space. As the Artemis Accords gain new signatories, China is still waiting for another leader besides Putin to team up on the International Lunar Research Station.

Chinese state media reported in March that negotiations were going on with the European Space Agency, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia about taking part in the rival moon base. But Russia’s war in Ukraine will likely make the project much less appealing to some.

Although China doesn’t need Russian expertise, Xi’s long-term strategic calculation means Beijing is unlikely abandon Moscow in an effort to win more potential partners.

The U.S. and China have traded accusations over two incidents last year involving satellites launched by SpaceX that Beijing said came dangerously close to its orbiting space station. The conflict signals what could go wrong without a common set of rules in space.

After China lodged a complaint with the UN, the US said a notification wasn’t necessary . That rattled China even more.

The incident points to China’s bigger problem with the Artemis Accords: 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.

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

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