The Strategic and Geopolitical Significance of India’s Chandrayaan 3 Lunar Mission

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The Strategic and Geopolitical Significance of India’s Chandrayaan 3 Lunar Mission

As the race to commercially exploit the Moon heats up, India’s latest mission has big ramifications. 

The Strategic and Geopolitical Significance of India’s Chandrayaan 3 Lunar Mission

A composite image of India’s Chandrayaan 3 Vikram lander on the Moon, taken by the Pragyan Rover, Sep. 4, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/ ISRO

India’s Chandrayaan 3 mission has been a focus of discussions across the globe since it landed successfully on the Lunar South Pole on August 23. The timing of the landing had both strategic and geopolitical implications. At the time of the landing, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was attending the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, right after fellow BRICS member Russia failed in its attempt to land near the Lunar South Pole with its Luna 25 probe.

At the BRICS summit, the geopolitics of the Moon was evident when South Africa, which was hosting the BRICS summit, signed an agreement with China to participate in its International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). China plans to build a research station on the Moon by 2036 in collaboration with Russia, Venezuela, and now South Africa. Pakistan, India’s long-time rival, aspires to be a signatory to the ILRS as well.

China is launching the Chang’e 6 probe in 2024 to land on the Lunar South Pole to survey the surface and pinpoint an area for construction and eventual human settlement. China has announced plans to send its taikonauts to the Moon by 2030.

The race is on, as countries build end-to-end space capabilities to support lunar exploration. That includes developing launch systems like China’s Long March 9 and Long March 10 (the latter developed specifically for human missions to the Moon), or SpaceX’s Starship, for heavy lift launches, as well as in-situ resource utilization capacities and the ability to construct bases on the strategic South Pole of the Moon. Plans from several countries tell us that the next 10 to 15 years will center on commercial development of the Moon.

Given this, the success of India’s Chandrayaan 3 lunar mission has major strategic and geopolitical implications.

Strategic Implications

First, becoming the first nation to land on the Lunar South Pole – and with a cost-effective space logistics system ($75 million) to boot – implies that India now has the knowhow for future missions to the South Pole. One mission is not enough to understand the Lunar South Pole’s surface, as this is a highly understudied area. We need end-to-end lunar missions to pinpoint areas in the South Pole that can support space resource utilization and build the infrastructure for future habitation.

In 2026, India is planning to collaborate with Japan to send a probe called Lunar Polar Exploration Mission (LUPEX), also referred to as the Chandrayaan 4 mission. This mission will be tasked with confirming the presence of water-ice on the Lunar South Pole. This mission will analyze the quality and quantity of lunar water, which is vital for life support and turning into rocket fuel. These details will tell us how much water humans can source directly from the Moon, and how much water would need to be transported from Earth to support human habitation on the lunar surface.

India’s current mission provides a fillip to this future initiative. As per Aso Dai, the LUPEX project manager at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), “Valuable data on friction and minerals obtained [by Chandrayaan 3] will definitely be useful for LUPEX.”

Critically, China is launching its Chang’e 6 mission in 2024 to bring back lunar samples from the South Pole of the Moon. Having clinched lunar landings and autonomous sample return through the Chang’e 5 probe, China is well equipped to succeed in its Chang’e 6 mission.

Subsequently, in 2026 – the same year when India and Japan aim to launch their water-ice probe to the Moon’s South Pole – China plans to launch its Chang’e 7, which will be equipped with a hopping detector to go study the shadow pit near the South Pole of the Moon, an area where water-ice is believed to be plentiful. Similar to India and Japan’s study of water quality, the Chang’e 7 will study both the quality of lunar water and its distribution. The probe will be equipped with a drilling tool to sample the lunar water-ice before a robotic arm will move the samples to a heating furnace for spectral analysis.

The fact that China has one of the most ambitious lunar missions with a clear roadmap to 2040 means India’s Chandrayaan 3 mission – clinching the first Lunar South Pole landing – has deep strategic significance, bringing a first mover advantage.

Second, India’s Chandrayaan 3 mission has collected vital data about the presence of sulfur on the lunar surface as well as detecting other minor elements through the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) experiment on its Pragyan rover. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)’s website does not specify what those minor elements are, but we do know, as per Chandrayaan 3 mission goals, that one objective is to “determine the elemental composition (Mg, Al, Si, K, Ca, Ti, Fe) [magnesium, aluminum, silicon, potassium, calcium, titanium, iron] of lunar soil and rocks around the lunar landing site.” Detecting these elements on lunar soil will be noteworthy, as they are all resources that can be utilized to support human habitation and construction.

Most importantly, the Chandrayaan 3 mission has offered data on the lunar surface temperature. An experiment on the lunar lander Vikram, called Chandra’s Surface Thermophysical Experiment (ChaSTE), is equipped with 10 individual temperature sensors that can reach a depth of 10 centimeters below the lunar surface. Preliminary data from the probe has confirmed that the Moon’s temperature just 8 cm underground is 60 degrees Celsius lower than on the surface during a lunar day. This has direct practical consequences for lunar resource utilization and any future lunar habitation plans.

Third, space capability demonstration matters when it comes to lunar development. China’s Chang’e lunar missions are all geared toward building knowhow, from sample returns to bigger questions about the technology needed to survive on the lunar surface. The success of India’s Chandrayaan 3 has built momentum for the 27 signatory nations of the Artemis Accords. India’s operational Lunar South Pole capacity, as well as the scientific data and lunar knowhow gathered by the mission, can help meet and scale up some of the goals of the Artemis program, to include lunar resource utilization.

This is where geopolitics comes in.

Geopolitical Implications

The geopolitical implications of India’s Chandrayaan 3 success are pretty evident. A few weeks after its successful lunar landing, India hosted the G-20 summit in New Delhi. Chinese President Xi Jinping did not attend the summit; neither did Russian President Vladimir Putin. That both China and Russia are dissociating from such groupings was rather clear from the joint statement they signed on the China-Russia partnership in February 2022 and subsequently during Xi’s visit to Moscow in March this year.

India is perceived by China as supportive of a U.S.-led international order as well as playing to its own national interests, which includes an assertive Indian policy to counter China at their disputed border. The China-India relationship is now clearly competitive across a multitude of fronts. On outer space specifically, India signed the Artemis Accords in June 2023, a U.S.-led space cooperation grouping that is in implicit competition with China’s ILRS. During the G-20 summit, India also signed a connectivity agreement with the U.S., Europe, and Middle Eastern countries that challenges China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and India and the United States issued a joint statement championing the Quad and a free Indo-Pacific.

The geopolitical implications of the India-U.S. joint statement right on the heels of India’s Chandrayaan 3 success are clear, specifically pertaining to space cooperation. Following the June 22 joint statement during Modi’s visit to the U.S., which also highlighted space cooperation between the two sides, the September 8 joint statement between India and the U.S. issued during the G-20 summit went further. Both sides agreed to establish a joint Working Group for Commercial Space Collaboration within the existing India-U.S. Civil Space Working Group. NASA and the ISRO agreed to develop capacity building and training for a joint mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2024. Both sides agreed to develop a strategic framework for a human spaceflight program by the end of 2023.

And then came one of the most important items for space cooperation. For the first time, both the United States and India agreed to increase cooperation on planetary defense “to protect planet Earth and space assets from the impact of asteroids and near-Earth objects, including U.S.  support for India’s participation in asteroid detection and tracking via the Minor Planet Center.” This opens up far-reaching collaboration between India and the United States, to include developing nuclear technology, viewed as a viable option to deflect an asteroid.

Planetary defense cooperation has geopolitical implications. In China’s 2021 White Paper on its space program, planetary defense or “near-earth object defense system,” as China calls it, was chosen as a priority area. China’s efforts to that end include building an asteroid cataloging and an early warning and response system. China also plans to launch an asteroid deflection mission in 2025 targeting Asteroid 2020 PN1. Russia has expressed interest in joining China in this asteroid mission.

The Chandrayaan 3 mission has had both strategic and geopolitical implications. India’s value addition as a space partner has gone up with its Chandrayaan 3 success, followed by the launch of its Aditya 1 mission to Sun-Earth Lagrange point 1. Partnership with the United States in space is strengthening; so is India’s ability to bring other nations into groupings of its choice.

During the G-20 summit under India’s presidency, the African Union (AU) officially joined the G-20 as a permanent member. The AU has constituted the African Space Agency, which will look to collaborate and co-develop space technologies moving forward. The Chandrayaan 3’s cost effective end-to-end space model offers a viable option. India’s outreach to Africa also works to limit China’s influence on the continent.

However, for all this to be sustained, a vision for space development is required: Toward what end are all these space capacities being developed? While strategic and geopolitical competition is a part of the game, space resource utilization and commercial return from cislunar space is China’s focus. India will have to come up with a space policy vision that clearly articulates its space goals for the next 20 years. Its current 2023 space policy is not a visionary statement; it’s more a tactical document for how space commercialization is to be achieved by reorganizing its space policy institutions. To become a truly great space power, clarity of purpose is key.

Also critical is the ability to sustain a space program with adequate resources that is aimed at specific development of value chains, regulatory frameworks, jobs, practical aspirations, and grand scale development. The Chandrayaan 3 mission has offered India a chance to build into that future of space development. The time is now to take up the challenge of offering India’s long-term vision for space development.