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Vikram lander on the moon
The Vikram lander of India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission on the surface of the Moon, as seen by its Pragyan rover. (credit: ISRO)

India is on the Moon, but needs to avoid the “Moon Race” trap

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The North–South divide in a global context is well-known. The Global South gets viewed as a grouping of states that are classified by low income, inadequate infrastructure, and large populations. This grouping is known to constitute the developing countries in the world. But today, one of them has reached the Moon!

On August 23, India made history with its Chandrayaan-3 mission soft-landing on the Moon. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully managed the soft-landing of the Vikram lander (plus the Pragyan rover) on the lunar surface. Based on the scientific rationale, ISRO had decided to land near the lunar south pole. This region, full of craters, boulders, and uneven terrain, was long considered a difficult landing zone. This region, as such, has never been explored much before. Within a day after the soft-landing, the rover successfully started operating on the lunar surface for a two-week (one lunar day) mission. With the success of this mission, ISRO has demonstrated the capabilities towards undertaking soft-landing on other planets, rover mobility, and ability to conduct in-situ scientific experiments.

With the success of this mission, ISRO has demonstrated the capabilities towards undertaking soft-landing on other planets, rover mobility, and ability to conduct in-situ scientific experiments.

In 2019, ISRO suffered a setback with its Chandrayaan-2 mission, whose lander crashed while attempting a soft-landing on the lunar surface. Subsequently, after undertaking a very detailed assessment of the failure, ISRO took action on a follow-up mission in the last three years. They decided to undertake a “failure-based” approach for designing the Chandrayaan-3 mission. Various possible causes for failures were identified, simulations were performed, and an algorithm was developed accordingly. Almost all the “known unknowns” were identified and corrective mechanisms for possible deviations were incorporated in the software. Additionally, some changes in the physical appearance of the lander system were incorporated, such as making the lander’s legs stronger.

The lander and rover are equipped with different scientific payloads. They would be observing various atmospheric and geological aspects of the Moon. These sensors are meant for studying mineralogical structure, surface chemistry, and other lunar surface analysis. The aim is to know more about the potential presence of water ice and possible resource basins on the lunar surface.

Chandrayaan-3 undertook a 40-day journey to reach the lunar surface, supported by a propulsion module. The propulsion module carried the lander and rover to a lunar orbit of around 113 kilometers and then separated itself. It was originally expected that this module would stay in orbit for around three to six months, but since this mission happened almost a textbook fashion, saving propellant, it is now expected that the propulsion module will stay in orbit for around a year. This unit has one interesting sensor, which is designed to conduct spectral and polarmetric measurements of Earth from lunar orbit. The idea here is to study the features of a habitable planet that could help in future exploration of exoplanets.

During Chandrayaan-3’s journey to the Moon an incident unrelated to the mission itself, but one having a bearing on the global Moon agenda, happened. Russia’s Luna-25 lunar lander crashed on the Moon's surface after a failed orbital maneuver. This mission had lifted off on August 10 and entered lunar orbit on August 16 successfully, but unfortunately crashed on August 19, two days before its anticipated landing. The Luna-25 lander was to operate on the lunar surface for a year.

This failure is a very unfortunate incident for the entire world, from the point of view of science. This mission was also to land near the south pole of the Moon like Chandrayaan-3. Since both these missions were about to land almost simultaneously, and both in the south polar regions, some unnecessary buzz was created that India and Russia are racing to reach the south pole of the Moon. In fact, India’s second mission to the Moon (Chandrayaan-2) was planned as a joint mission with Russia. Owing to their internal space agency problems, Russia announced its inability to join this mission around 2015.

There has been some talk about bracketing Chandrayaan-3’s successful Moon landing with the geopolitics of the perceived Space Race or Moon Race. Should India unnecessarily get carried away by such comments?

Competition in space was a defining part of the power politics of the Cold War era. Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon was all about geostrategic signaling. Broadly, the aspects of the nuclear arms race and the reasons for the end of the Cold War are well known. Today, the proponents of a new Space Race are almost fast-forwarding the ideas from the Cold War period and juxtaposing them on the space domain. Apparently, there could be a reason in the context of the Moon to have such a view. Nations like China, Japan, India, Israel, South Korea, and the UAE are having their own Moon programs. Even North Korea has shown interest!

To say that one state aspiring to put a spacecraft into lunar orbit is in a race with another that has already successfully undertaken a Moon sample return mission is very misleading.

In the Cold War period, the game of the nuclear arms race was more about which power block has a greater number of weapons. There was definitely an emphasis not only on quantity, but also on the quality of weapons. Issues like the hydrogen bomb, weapon delivery vehicles, and mutually assured destruction (MAD) were also at the forefront of the deterrence debate. Both power blocks were oblivious of the details of the size of each other’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. Broadly, to possess a reasonable quantity nuclear arsenal is sufficient to acquire a deterrence posture. However, the stakes were raised and, unnecessarily, the nuclear weapons number game started. One power block was not able to financially sustain continuing with the game and the rest is history. Such an argument could be viewed as a very straitjacketed or even a naive argument regarding Cold-War-era power politics. However, the purpose here is not to get into the nuances of the older debate, but to use it as a startong point for comparison with the space domain.

At present, there looks to be a reasonable amount of transparency in the domain of space activities. Barring one odd state, there is mostly an openness in the Moon programs of various nations. More importantly, there is an important element of international collaboration involved in various Moon programs. Every nation that has a Moon agenda does not necessarily have the capabilities to launch their Moon missions, requiring international assistance. Private companies are also playing a major role towards furthering the global Moon agenda.

The Moon programs of every state are at different levels of advancement. So, to say that one state aspiring to put a spacecraft into lunar orbit is in a race with another that has already successfully undertaken a Moon sample return mission is very misleading. Most of the programs are scientific programs and should be treated as such. Comparing scientific missions to the Moon with a borrowed concept from the Cold War era is extraneous.

In contrast, the marathon for planetary resources is on the horizon. It is obvious that technological and financial ability would be the deciding factor in this game. Given present trends, mostly it would be the US and China who would be fighting it out in the planetary ring. The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 of the US and the Artemis Accords indicate that the future of space resources would be controlled mainly by the private players, mostly from the US. Against this backdrop, the states from the Global South should collaborate with each other and continue with their Moon agendas with science as a focus. At present, these states do not have the capability to take humans to the Moon and there is no demand to do so. It is important for them to develop robotic capability to get planetary resources back to the Earth. A “Moon Race” is a trap they should avoid at any cost.

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