China probably won’t ‘take over’ the Moon, despite what NASA administrator says

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently expressed concern about China’s goals in space, and in particular that China would somehow claim ownership of the Moon and prevent other countries from exploring it.

In an interview with a German newspaper, Nelson warned: “We must be very concerned that China is landing on the Moon and saying: ‘Now it’s ours and you stay out'”. China immediately denounced the claims as a “lie”.

This dispute between the NASA administrator and Chinese government officials comes at a time when both nations are actively working on missions to the Moon, and China has not been shy about its lunar aspirations.

In 2019, China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon. That same year, China and Russia announced joint plans to reach the Moon’s south pole by 2026. And some Chinese officials and government documents have expressed intentions to build a permanent, manned International Lunar Research Station by 2027.

There is a big difference between China, or any other state, establishing a lunar base and actually “taking control” of the Moon.

As two academics who study space security and China’s space program, we believe that neither China nor any other nation is likely to seize the Moon in the near future. It is not only illegal, it is also technologically daunting: the costs of such an effort would be extremely high, while the potential benefits would be uncertain.

China is bound by international space law

Legally, China cannot seize the Moon because it is against current international space law. The Outer Space Treaty, adopted in 1967 and signed by 134 countries, including China, explicitly states that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, through use or occupation, or by any other means” (Article II).

Jurists have debated the exact meaning of “appropriation”, but under a literal interpretation, the treaty indicates that no country can take possession of the Moon and declare it an extension of its national aspirations and prerogatives. If China tried to do this, it would risk international condemnation and a possible retaliatory international response.

While no country can claim ownership of the Moon, Article I of the Outer Space Treaty allows any state to explore and use outer space and celestial bodies. China will not be the only visitor to the South Pole of the Moon in the near future.

The US-led Artemis Accords are a group of 20 countries that have plans to return humans to the Moon by 2025, which will include establishing a lunar surface research station and support space station. in orbit called Gateway with a planned plan. launch in November 2024.

Even if no country can legally claim sovereignty over the Moon, it is possible that China, or any other country, may attempt to gradually establish de facto control over strategically important areas through a strategy known as “salami cutting.”

This practice involves taking small incremental steps to bring about big change: Individually, those steps do not guarantee a strong response, but their cumulative effect adds up to significant developments and greater control. China has recently been using this strategy in the South and East China seas. Still, such a strategy takes time and can be tackled.

Controlling the Moon is difficult

With a surface area of ​​almost 14.6 million square miles (39 million square kilometers), or almost five times the area of ​​Australia, any control of the Moon would be temporary and localized.

More plausibly, China could try to secure control of specific lunar areas that are strategically valuable, such as lunar craters with higher concentrations of water ice.

Ice on the Moon is important because it will provide humans with water that would not need to be shipped from Earth. The ice can also serve as a vital source of oxygen and hydrogen, which could be used as rocket fuel. In short, water ice is essential to ensure the long-term sustainability and survival of any mission to the Moon or beyond.

Securing and enforcing control of strategic lunar areas would require substantial financial investments and long-term efforts. And no country could do this without everyone noticing.

Does China have the resources and capabilities?

China is investing heavily in space. In 2021, it led the number of orbital launches with a total of 55 compared to the US’s 51. The country has almost finished building the Tiangong space station.

Going to the Moon is expensive; “taking control” of the Moon would be much more. China’s space budget, estimated at $13 billion in 2020, is only about half that of NASA. Both the US and China increased their space budgets in 2020, the US by 5.6% and China by 17.1% compared to the previous year.

But even with the increased spending, China does not seem to be spending the money needed to carry out the expensive, audacious and uncertain mission to “take control” of the Moon.

If China assumes control of any part of the Moon, it would be a risky, expensive and extremely provocative move. China would risk further tarnishing its international image by violating international law, and could invite retaliation. All this for uncertain payments that remain to be determined.The conversation

Svetla Ben-Itzhak, Assistant Professor of Space and International Relations, Air University and R. Lincoln Hines, Assistant Professor, West Space Seminar, Air University, Air University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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