Did anyone notice Russia and China signing up to a treaty to form a common base on the moon?
Now, before my imagination runs away with me and I go full Belter,
this is a wee reminder that our next step into space isn’t to build Elysium,
rather it is instead going to soon be cheaper in terms of money, conflict, and environmental degradation to mine less on earth and more on the moon.
Deep down in the South Pacific we’re only vaguely aware of the political contests that will arise once the Antarctic Treaty expires in 2048. So who could possibly care about mining the moon?
Except, except: a locally-domiciled company has some strong expertise in generating really cheap rockets out of earth and into orbit.
Cheap flights for space payloads will do for the industry what cheap flights did for international tourism: massive.
On March 9th, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the Russian Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the joint construction of an autonomous lunar permanent research base. The agreement describes the planned International Lunar activities such as the lunar exploration and utilisation, lunar-based observation, scientific experiment, and technical verification.”
These two major space faring nations have agreed to promote the ILRS to gain international partners for their joint lunar mission, especially by broadcasting China’s lunar South Pole environment and resource survey mission, the Chang’e 7 and Russia’s Luna-Resurs-1 Russian Orbital Spacecraft (OS) mission.
It’s likely that this partnership has been spurred by former US President Donald Trump’s April 6, 2020 executive order on the utilisation of space resources for international partnerships.
The moon is no longer seen as a dead rock where humanity lands for a few days, shows off technology, and then does street parades Earth. Today the discourse on the moon is about its resource potential, including the presence of water ice, solar power, and rare earth elements like platinum, titanium, scandium, and yttrium. Chinese space scientists and engineers have long recognized the economic potential of space resources to include a $10 trillion return on investments from the Earth-moon zone annually by 2050.
Other benefits highlighted by Chinese scientists are the potential of lunar propellant made from water-ice lowering the cost of access and movement through the entire volume of our lunar space. Launching from the moon is 22 times more efficient than launching from Earth. To access those lunar resources, a long term permanent presence will be necessary – first robotic, then human. This aspect of mastering autonomous robotic lunar basing capacities is highlighted in the China-Russia MoU. Russia announced its own lunar plan in 2018 including resource extracting ambitions in 2018, with a three-phase construction plan between 2025 and 2040.
China and Russia already cooperate fairly strongly through the Belt and Road agreement and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
By establishing an alternative lunar base development effort, China and Russia are questioning the legitimacy of the Artemis Accords and signaling that they do not view US efforts both public and private as the only mechanism for cooperation in space. Leadership in space is now contested. Once they draw in enough partners and signatories to their lunar research base, China and Russia will have the power and influence to create an alternative state-centric regulatory regime and development. Both wield enormous clout internationally via their United Nations Security Council permanent memberships and veto power as well as advocacy in United Nations space bodies.
Beijing and Moscow are especially worried by the prospect of the private space sector taking the lead in developing space technology breakthroughs. This implies fast enhancement of capability such as SpaceX and Blue Origin re-usable rockets and lunar landers. The anxiety around a trillion-dollar space market was evident in Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s vocal opposition to the U.S. focus on the privatization of space. China and Russia are a long way behind rocket re-usability, and it shows.
But we are collectively getting better at getting to Mars, and right now we have China and the US both orbiting Mars at the same time, ready to deploy on the surface.
I know, it’s all a bit catch-up football from China and the Russians.
But demand for mined minerals is going to keep climbing, and the rare metals social license to operate is being formed on our nearest big rock, just as it weakens here.