Could China Take Over the Moon? Space security experts explain the reality

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently expressed concerns about China’s goals in space, and in particular, that China would somehow claim ownership of the Moon and prevent other countries from exploring it.

In a interview with a German newspaperNelson warned: “We must be very worried that China will land on the moon and say, ‘It’s ours now and you stay out.'”

China immediately denounced the claims as a “lie”.

This spat between the NASA administrator and Chinese government officials comes at a time when the two nations are actively working on missions to the moon – and China has not shied away from its lunar aspirations.

China and the Moon

In 2019, China became the first country land a spaceship on the far side of the Moon. That same year, China and Russia announced joint plans reach the south pole of the Moon by 2026. And some Chinese officials and government documents have expressed intentions to build a permanent crewed international lunar research station by 2027.

There is a big difference between China – or any state for that matter – establishing a moon base and “taking over” the Moon. As two scholars who study space security and the Chinese space program, we believe that neither China nor any other nation is likely to take over the Moon in the near future. This is not only illegal, but also technologically daunting – the costs of such an endeavor would be extremely high, while the potential gains would be uncertain.

What the law says — Legally, China cannot take control of the Moon because it is against existing international space law. The Outer Space Treatyadopted in 1967 and signed by 134 countries, including China, explicitly declares that “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by use or occupation, or by any other means” (Article II). The lawyers have debated the exact meaning of “appropriation”, but on a literal interpretation, the treaty indicates that no country can take possession of the Moon and declare it an extension of its national aspirations and prerogatives. If China tried to do so, it would risk international condemnation and a possible retaliatory international response.

Although no country can claim ownership of the Moon, First article of the Outer Space Treaty allows any State to explore and use outer space and celestial bodies. China will not be the only visitor at the South Pole of the Moon in the near future. United States led Accords of Artemis is a group of 20 countries with plans to get humans back to the Moon by 2025, which will include establishing a research station on the lunar surface and an orbiting support space station called the bridge with a planned launch in November 2024.

Even though no country can legally claim sovereignty over the Moon, it is possible that China, or any other country, may attempt to gradually establish de facto control over strategically important areas through a strategy known as “slicing salami.” This practice involves taking small, incremental steps to achieve a big change: Individually, these steps do not warrant a strong response, but their cumulative effect adds up to meaningful developments and increased control. China has recently used this strategy in the South and East China Seas. Yet such a strategy takes time and can be tackled.

The moon is just too big

With an area of ​​nearly 14.6 million square miles (39 million square kilometers) — or almost five times the area of ​​Australia — any control of the Moon would be temporary and localized.

More plausibly, China could attempt to secure control of specific lunar areas that have strategic value, such as lunar craters with higher concentrations of frozen water. Ice on the Moon is important because it will provide water for humans that would not need to be shipped from Earth. Ice can also serve as a vital source of oxygen and hydrogen, which could be used as rocket fuel. In short, water ice is essential to ensure the long-term sustainability and survivability of any mission to the Moon or beyond.

Securing and enforcing control of strategic lunar areas would require substantial financial investments and long-term efforts. And no country could do that without everyone noticing.

China is investing heavily in space. In 2021, it conducted a number of orbital launches with a total of 55 compared to 51 in the United States. China is also in the The first three in the deployment of spacecraft for 2021. The Chinese space company StarNet plans a mega constellation of 12,992 satellitesand the country has almost completed the construction of the Tiangong space station.

Going to the moon is Dear; “taking control” of the Moon would be much more so. China’s space budget — a estimated at $13 billion in 2020 — is only about half that of from NASA. The United States and China both increased their space budgets in 2020, the United States by 5.6% and China by 17.1% compared to the previous year. But even with increased spending, China does not appear to be investing the money needed to carry out the costly, audacious and uncertain mission to “take control” of the Moon.

If China took control of part of the moon, it would be a risky, expensive and extremely provocative action. China would risk further tarnishing its international image by breaking international law, and it could invite retaliation. All this for uncertain gains that remain to be determined.

This article was originally published on The conversation by Svetla Ben-Itzhak and R. Lincoln Hines at Air University. Read it original article here.