On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on its surface. Next week, as we gear up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that historic landing, there is another lunar mission that will be on its way to the moon. India’s Chandrayaan 2 moon mission is scheduled to be launched on July 15. The landing site is between Manzinus C and Simpelius N, about 70 degrees south of the equator, closest to the South Pole of the moon. The mission will consist of an orbiter, a lander called Vikram, and a rover known as Pragyan. The touchdown of the lander is scheduled for September 6 this year. While the motivations for the Chandrayaan 2 mission likely preceded the global dialogue on space resources that has animated the world this year, India is rebranding the mission within that emerging discussion on space resources, especially with a landing close to the lunar South Pole.
The South Pole appears to be among the most important areas for industrial exploitation, and China has already articulated lunar settlement plans nearby in its long-term space goals. Significantly, India will be attempting to land on an ancient high plane just 600 kilometers from the Lunar South Pole. According to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), “the payloads will collect scientific information on lunar topography, mineralogy, elemental abundance, lunar exosphere and signatures of hydrogel and water ice.” India is attempting to land on an area where no nation has landed before, and once there aims to study the potential for helium-3 deposits on the lunar surface, worth trillions.
Consideration of helium-3 appears to have been a motivation or consideration of India’s lunar program from the start. As early as September of 2006, two years before the launch of Chandrayaan 1, then-ISRO Chairman Madhavan Nair stated that Chandrayaan 1 will search the moon’s surface for deposits of helium-3, which can be used to power future nuclear reactors. Speaking at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Mumbai, Nair stated, “The quantity of helium-3 is also very important as it will determine the economics before we exploit it.” According to K. Sivan, the present chairman of ISRO, “The countries which have the capacity to bring that source from the moon to Earth will dictate the process…I don’t want to be just a part of them, I want to lead them.” Helium-3 is abundant on the moon, compared to Earth, and would require difficult extraction processes, but once that technology is cracked, it could theoretically meet Earth’s energy demands, several decades over.
Chandrayaan 2 will be the first of a parade of lunar landers after China’s Chang’e 4 reignited international interest on the moon, and kindled a new attention among space-faring nations, aimed at resource exploitation. The timing of the Indian lunar landing is significant internationally. Chang’e 4 landing on January 3 on the far side of the moon established a new global context, a context I have termed the Chang’e era of long term space development and presence. It changed the focus of conversation from an Apollo-era focus on dramatic firsts in space to broader concerns over securing access to space-based resources such as lunar ice and metals. Chandrayaan 2 is the first mission to take place in this new global context. There is now a broad interest in space mining and accompanying legal frameworks. These are propelled by expectations that the size of the space economy will grow from its present $400 billion to exceed over $1 trillion by 2040.
Chandrayaan 2 is also a sort of coming out party for India, which has recently decided to become a comprehensive space power. While historically, India has focused on a civilian space enterprise, this year in March, India tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, called Mission Shakti, thereby dramatically changing its space outlook. The ASAT test reflected India’s willingness to stake its international reputation, take severe criticism for creating space debris, and join an exclusive club with such capabilities primarily so that when a regime around space governance is constructed, India would find itself squarely at the table as a “have.”
Two other significant changes were the establishment of the Defense Space Agency (DSA) and the Defense Space Research Organization (DSRO) following the March ASAT test. The broad goals of the DSA will be to chart a strategy that protects India’s assets in outer space and builds capacity to develop counterspace and countervalue co-orbital weapons systems. The idea is to deter an adversary from threatening India’s space assets. The DSRO is tasked with providing technical and research support to the DSA. The DSA is to be headed by an Indian Air Force air vice marshall with a start staff of 200 personnel. Critically, the aim of this change is to bring into one institutional body the space assets of the army, navy, and air force. Such changes come at a time of heated debate within the United States with regard to the establishment of a separate space service that would bring together the space assets of the country into one administrative set up. China already has a separate unit for space, the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) established in 2015. The recent changes within India with regard to outer space and a growing willingness to showcase its military space power clearly imply that China’s ability to threaten Indian space assets has become more lethal in recent years. India now takes seriously the threat posed to its national security and space assets.
To establish a more permanent space presence, India recently announced its plans to build its own space station by 2030. In August 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced during India’s Independence Day celebration that ISRO will be sending Indian astronauts to Low Earth Orbit by 2022.
It is in this changing outer space strategic context — a refocus on the moon as a strategic asset for long-term space settlement plans, backed by military institutional reform, especially within China — that India’s Chandrayaan 2 mission will begin its journey to the lunar South Pole on July 15. The mission, with its focus on studying the lunar surface for minerals and water ice, will further indicate why countries like China are focusing on the South Pole for long term settlement purposes, given the strategic significance the lunar poles have for long term space access and dominance.
The recent changes in India’s space policy indicates that India is now a serious contender for the strategic future, where space resources will play a significant role in determining the future of international power. And as Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China’s Lunar Exploration Program at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), forecasted in 2002: “The moon could serve as a new and tremendous supplier of energy and resources for human beings…This is crucial to sustainable development of human beings on Earth…Whoever first conquers the moon will benefit first.”