If China and the US Claim the Same Moon-Base Site, Who Wins?
Relatively few craters are attractive, and there’s no consensus about avoiding conflict over them.
There’s a not-so-quiet race back to the moon underway, but the two largest factions, with China and Russia on one side, and the United States and its partners on the other, are not recognizing each others’ proposed rules on what’s allowed once they get there.
Lawmakers and space policy analysts are concerned: How do you avoid conflict in space if the international laws and policies on Earth no longer apply?
“Many terrestrial military doctrines are not applicable in space, or at least not as applicable. If you get beyond 50 miles, or at least 62 miles, suddenly different rules apply. We need to start being aware of that,” says Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.
There’s already some aggressive international elbowing over the rules of satellite operations. As with the moon, there’s no consensus yet on how to respond to aggression in Earth orbit, the head of U.S. Space Command Gen. James Dickinson told attendees at last week’s Sea Air Space conference.
“The behavior of some of our adversaries in space may surprise you,” Dickinson said. “If similar actions have been taken in other domains, they'd likely be considered provocative, aggressive, or maybe even irresponsible. And in response, the U.S. government would take corresponding actions using all levers of national power, a demarche, or a sanction or something to indicate we won't tolerate that type of behavior, but we're not quite there yet in space policy.”
In 1967, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a treaty on the use of outer space that promised cooperation and banned nuclear weapons, military maneuvers, and military installations off-planet. The agreement also requires countries to take “appropriate international consultations” before making any moves that would “cause potentially harmful interference” with other space programs, and allows countries to “request consultation” if they believe such interference is likely.
This treaty “forecasted very well” the issues that that might arise as space exploration expanded, said James Lake, a senior associate at Canyon Consulting who co-wrote an article on lunar security issues in this month’s Space Force Journal. “The question remains: is that text sufficient? That’s something we are going to find out fairly soon.”
Notably, a treaty annex that prohibits military activity on the moon went unratified by Russia, China, and the United States. It’s likely both the China-Russia and U.S.-led partnerships will begin their moon bases without any sort of agreement between them in place.
In June, the China National Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos announced they would begin surveying locations for their International Lunar Research Station this year, and pick a site by 2025.
In 2020, NASA, together with the nations partnering with the U.S. under the Artemis Accords, outlined its Artemis Base Camp project. The Artemis nations aim to to send astronauts back to the moon by 2024.
But there may be only a few locations on the moon where it would make economic sense to build a base, said Bleddyn Bowen, a professor at the University of Leicester and author of War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics.
“Water ice, for example, might be in limited pockets, for example, making the territories around certain craters on the polar regions, perhaps more desirable,” Bowen said.
So what happens if each decides on the same crater as the best spot to begin moon operations?
“If you have a situation like that, where you're trying to do something in the exact same spot, it’s essentially who gets there first,” said Alex Gilbert, a researcher and space resources doctoral student at the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines. “And if you're not first, then the only alternative is to forcibly remove the current occupant.”
The Artemis nations have endorsed the idea of “safety zones” on the moon, to require communication between two space operations that want to operate in the same area.
“Even if you set up a base and you declare a safety zone, people can still go into that safety zone. It's just something that it's really to be used as a tool to get parties to talk to each other,” he said.
But there’s already a risk those zones will instead be used as a way to rope off sites from competitors, he said.
“One thing that is really kind of important to understand about safety zones is that everyone kind of has their own definition,” Gilbert said.
“Whoever gets there first can use the resources, but no nation can ‘claim’ the territory,” said Laura Duffy, a space systems engineer with Canyon Consulting who co-wrote “Cislunar Spacepower, The New Frontier,” with Lake with Lake in this month’s Space Force Journal.
It’s not just water, but rare earth metals and helium-3 that will be up for grabs on the moon, making a treaty for its peaceful use critical, Duffy said.
“The Moon must be available for open and free use, according to the Artemis Accords and Outer Space Treaty,” she said.
But neither Russia nor China are expected to join the Artemis Accords.
Until now, U.S. space defense has largely concentrated around the objects orbiting Earth. That changed this year, when the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command were tasked with protecting U.S. assets up to 272,000 miles away, a volume called “cislunar space” that extends slightly beyond the Moon’s orbit.
They have some catching up to do, said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Science, Space and Technology Committee. Lucas believes the 2019 landing of China’s Chang'e-4 spacecraft on the far side of the moon should have been this generation’s Sputnik moment.
“But with all of the chaos in the world, and COVID-19, and all of this environment we're working in, we missed it,” he said.
Those far-side moon operations meant China had developed the technology to operate and communicate with its landed rover out of line of sight—and out of view of almost all of the U.S. ability to see what they’re doing.
The achievement allows China “to accomplish scientific, military, or other endeavors without observation or repercussion,” Duffy and Lake wrote. The authors urged that the U.S. needs to speed its monitoring efforts, such as the Cislunar Highway Patrol System, or CHPS, that is being developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory.
“In the future, other defensive and offensive assets will be needed to assure the open and peaceful use of cislunar space,” the authors argued.
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