Artist's illustration of the Chandrayaan-3 mission after it completed its final lunar orbit manoeuvre. (ISRO via Twitter)
Listen to this article
Watch this space: Luna-25, Chandrayaan-3, Artemis 2 and the ‘lunar economy’ race
As India’s Chandrayaan-3 and Russia’s Luna-25 raced to the Moon over the last week, they drowned out the noise of a Pentagon announcement that signified how important this return to the Moon could be for all the countries participating in it.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is part of the United States Department of Defense, announced a ten-year plan to develop a “lunar economy.” Interestingly, the agency was behind many of the technologies that put man on the Moon in the first place. This includes the rocket technology used on the Saturn V rockets that launched the Apollo missions.
During a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2010, then US president Barack Obama seemingly indicated that NASA is looking away from its main target, the Moon, and looking towards other goals like sending missions to asteroids and Mars, reported the Washington Post. “I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”
But things have changed since then. DARPA’s plan for creating a lunar economy is in line with NASA’s ambitions to establish a long-term presence on the Moon. And as we have seen in recent months, both India and Russia also have similar ambitions. There is another country in the race—China. Bloomberg reported in 2022 that China plans to launch three unmanned missions to the Moon in the coming decade shortly after discovering a new mineral “Changesite-(Y)” on the Moon.
But why are so many countries joining this race to the Moon? To begin with, exploring the Moon will help scientists uncover knowledge that will help them better understand how the Earth was
formed. During the Apollo missions, our understanding of the Moon was very different since we believed it to be a dry and desolate place.
In an interview with the Post, Thomas Zurbuchen, former head of NASA’s science directorate, said that NASA was going back to “the Moon that is really different from the Moon we left” during the Apollo missions. The Moon was thought to be dry but now we think differently. Multiple missions from different countries have detected the presence of water on the Moon.
That brings us neatly to another long-term ambition that will be part of establishing a sustained presence on the Moon—using it as a springboard to launch missions to other parts of the solar system, including Mars.
Water is essential for life as we know it, and one of its components is oxygen, which is also essential for life. But it can have more uses. The hydrogen and oxygen that it is made of can potentially be used as a rocket propellant. In fact, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as fuel.
Launching space missions from the Moon could turn out to be easier than launching them from Earth. The Moon has one-sixth the gravity of our planet and also has no atmosphere. Essentially, countries or commercial ventures establishing long-term human presence on the Moon could have the upper hand when it comes to missions deeper into space.
But that is a long way away. Before any of this, it would be essential to the “lunar economy” and associated infrastructure envisioned by DARPA. Pushing billions of dollars into developing lunar infrastructure will have to be justified by actual economic benefits. If humanity figures out a way to do that, we might finally even get the Gateway Moon station and the lunar nuclear plants that NASA has plans for.