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The moon is what scientists describe as the Earth’s only natural satellite and the brightest, largest object in the sky at night. So bright is this planet that it shines brighter than the sun with a greater number of gamma rays, reflecting some of the sun’s energy.
More than just light, the moon appears to have over time become a hotspot for many major countries that are racing to land spacecrafts on the moon.
Lunar exploration became big in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting artificial satellite in history, sparking the interest of another world power, America.
A year after launching its satellite in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to replace the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), the Soviet Union launched the Lunar 2 on September 1959, creating the first spacecraft to reach the surface of the moon.
The US introduced the first human-crewed spacecraft to successfully reach the moon and orbit it in December 1968, with Niel Armstrong and Edwin Buzz Aldrin becoming the first men to walk on the same and Michael Collins orbiting the same inside Apollo II in 1969.
Countries that have successfully visited the moon
Today, up to five countries have successfully mounted satellites on the moon, the Soviet Union (Russia), the United States of America, China which made its first soft landing with Chang’e-3 in December 2013, and India which made the headlines in July 2023 as the first country to land successfully on the lunar south pole with the Chandrayaan-3.
Japan is the latest to join the list with the ‘Moon Sniper’ making a soft landing on the lunar surface on January 13 without humans. The Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, SLIM used precision technology to make a soft landing
What is the chase about?
Recent lunar exploration programmes have been targeted at mining and human presence.
According to NASA presence of crucial elements including water and other minerals have been discovered on the moon.
Water for instance was discovered on the moon in 2008 by India’s team through the Chandrayaan 1. Hydroxyl molecules were detected in several parts of the moon’s surface according to NASA. It is one of the biggest discoveries for astronauts particularly because it could be explored to generate hydrogen and oxygen which can help sustain human life on the planet. It can also be used for rocket fuel and with water, equipment can be cooled and lunar bases could be established on the moon to cut down logistics.
A million tonnes of Helium-3 have been found on the moon’s surface according to NASA and extraction of this element from the moon’s resource soil, regolith could lead to lunar export for power generation on earth where it is quite insufficient.
Emerging technologies have a bigger chance if rare metals including Scandium (Sc), Gadolinium (Gd), and Terbium (Tb) among other rare-earth metals found on the lunar surface are explored. According to NASA these metals are used in modern electronics and mostly produced in China.
Recent attempts and plans
Russia has been behind after its Luna-25 lander which crashed into the moon on August 19, leading to a failure of the country to earn another win since its Luna 24 launch in 1976. But the Soviet country says it won’t back down with plans to launch three follow-on missions – Luna-26, 27, and 28 in 2027, 2028, and 2030 respectively.
The US’ attempts to launch Elon Musk’s new Starship spacecraft failed twice in 2023 April and November. The country through NASA hopes to return to the south pole of the lunar surface in 2026, after more than half a decade with Artemis III which will land the first woman and person of colour.
The Indian Space Research Organisation, ISRO, has planned to establish an Earth-orbiting space station by 2035 and introduce a human on the lunar surface by 2040. The country hopes to build a 20-ton space station in a fixed orbit that can host astronauts for between 15 and 20 days.
After the successful return of lunar rock samples from the moon in 2020, the Chinese are working towards securing a lunar spot on the moon’s south pole with the presence of astronauts by 2030. That puts them in a competitive position with the US which is working towards a similar goal.
The United Nations put in place an Outer Space Treaty which banned any one nation from claiming ownership of the planet in 1967.
The 1979 Moon Agreement also states that no part of the moon shall become property of any State, international government or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity of any natural person.
The Moon Agreement was considered and elaborated by the Legal Subcommittee from 1972 to 1979. The Agreement was adopted by the General Assembly in 1979 in resolution 34/68 but was ratified by Austria in June 1984, allowing it to enter into force in July 1984.
The Agreement reaffirms and elaborates on many of the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty as applied to the moon and other celestial bodies, providing that those bodies should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, that their environments should not be disrupted, that the United Nations should be informed of the location and purpose of any station established on those bodies.
The US, Russia, and China all eye the moon for its several benefits particularly with an eye for the south pole, with none signing the Artemis Accords, a non-binding multilateral agreement drafted by the US government to ensure peaceful cooperation around lunar exploration, the question remains what the future looks like in this lunar race among some of the world’s powers.
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