STARTING with Apollo 11, Nasa (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) landed six crewed missions on the Moon between the summer of 1969 and Christmas of 1972. They carried 24 astronauts, of which 12 walked on the lunar surface. After Apollo 17 in 1972, no human has gone there yet.
Those were essential to claim the Free World leader Wash-ington’s geopolitical bragging rights against the communist Moscow to prove who was technologically superior. It was strictly a political stunt: go to the Moon, plant the flag, and return to Earth. So once Moscow was beaten, there was no motivation for going there anymore.
But that’s changing. Nasa is committed to landing astronauts on the Moon again in 2025 as part of its Artemis Programme. China has plans to land humans on the Moon by 2030. In the meantime, uncrewed missions are increasingly heading towards the Moon. Russia’s robotic Luna-25, the first such endeavour in 47 years, crashed on the lunar surface shortly after 11.57 GMT on Aug 19. India made history on Aug 23 by soft-landing its Chandrayaan-3 mission at the Moon’s south pole.
After so many years, why have Moon landings become so cool again? The simple answer is: water.
Scientists have long speculated that water could exist on the Moon, but the samples that the Apollo crews brought back in the 1960s and early 1970s appeared dry. However, when Brown University researchers revisited those samples with new technology in 2008, they found hydrogen inside tiny beads of volcanic glass. In 2009, a Nasa instrument aboard the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Chandrayaan-1 probe detected water on the Moon’s surface. Another Nasa probe hit the south pole in the same year and found water ice below the surface. It confirmed the findings of an earlier Nasa mission, the 1998 Lunar Prospector, that the highest concentration of water ice was in the south pole’s shadowed craters.
Water on the Moon is crucially important, not the least for the astronauts’ use, which otherwise would have to be transported from Earth. Nasa says it costs almost US$10,000 (RM46,770) to launch a one-pound payload into the Earth’s orbit, which can be significantly reduced if lunar water is available.
More importantly, scientists can break it down to produce hydrogen for fuel in spacecraft for more distant missions and oxygen to breathe. A lunar pitstop will make missions to cosmic destinations far and beyond possible. Lesser lunar gravitational force – one-sixth that of the Earth – also reduces the cost of launching a satellite into its orbit.
Other than water, several minerals on the Moon can be commercially mined and transported back to Earth. These include a rare earth metal called neodymium, essential for making electric vehicle batteries. Extracting rare earth metals causes high levels of contamination of the surrounding environment. The Moon could be a pricier but greener option, offering a multi- trillion-dollar market.
Then there is helium-3, a rare element that can create a large amount of energy following the solar combustion process. Helium-3 is so rare on Earth that it sells for US$1.4mil (RM6.5mil) per kilo. Solar wind constantly bombards the lunar surface without any atmosphere or magnetic field for protection, depositing helium-3 on it. Just to have an idea, at current price levels, there’s around US$1.5 quadrillion (one quadrillion is 1,000 trillion) worth of helium-3 on the Moon. However, supply and demand economics means bringing helium-3 back from the Moon would significantly reduce the price.
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But who owns the Moon?
Unfortunately, there is no clear legal framework to answer this question, and the ownership issue is still a grey area. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty of the United Nations states that “outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all countries” and that “outer space is not subject to national appropriation or ownership”.
That was at the height of the Cold War, and the treaty aimed to prevent space from becoming another theatre of warfare, including a place to launch nuclear weapons from. How-ever, the present situation is entirely different, and the treaty doesn’t cover many potential scenarios, such as the involvement of private entities.
Then, in 2015, sniffing industrial prospects of space and the increasing participation of private entities, the Obama administration drafted the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which US Congress passed the following year, making space mining legal.
Despite the absence of any universally accepted legal framework, several countries are planning permanent bases on the Moon and Mars. Nasa is working on a permanent lunar base by 2035 and likely a Mars base by 2050. China’s Inter-national Lunar Research Station (ILRS) – with participation from Russia and several other countries – plans to have a similar lunar base in the 2030s. That will be a research base for launching further missions to Mars, eventually setting up a base there. By then, many heavy, complex and hazardous industries will move to the Moon, which will become a launch pad for regular crewed missions to Mars.
So humanity is not going back to the Moon but forward, as Dr Jack Burns, director of the Nasa-funded Network for Exploration and Space Science, says. Unlike the 1970s, the present technology is sustainable, the cost is manageable, the goal is straightforward, and the vision is long. The Apollo missions had five kilobytes of Random Access Memory (RAM). Today, a simple mobile phone is millions of times more powerful.
A new space “war” has begun as humanity enters an uncharted territory. – The Daily Star/Asia News Network
Dr Sayeed Ahmed is a consulting engineer and the CEO of Bayside Analytix, a technology-focused strategy and management consulting organisation in Bangladesh.