The Moon could get a little busy in the 2030s. The world’s biggest nations are all now working on developing lunar missions, thrusting the Moon once again to the center of a new global space race.
Last week, US vice president Mike Pence reiterated the Trump administration’s desire to see American astronauts back on the Moon.
“Here from this bridge to space our nation will return to the moon, and we will put American boots on the face of Mars,” Pence said during an address at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The Trump administration has elevated a return to the Moon as a priority for NASA.
Russia’s space agency Roscosmos announced earlier this year it was looking for astronauts for a crewed lunar mission that’ll launch in 2031. Roscosmos said four astronauts will fly to the Moon on the agency’s newest crewed transport craft, called the Federatsiya. Production of the new spacecraft began earlier this year, and the first tests of the Federatsiya are planned for 2021.
China, meanwhile, reaffirmed its plans to land astronauts on the surface of the moon by sometime in the 2030s, at the Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX 2017), held in Beijing earlier this month. Japan’s JAXA also recently announced plans to send astronauts to the Moon by 2030.
India also has a lunar mission in the works — slated for launch in Q1 of 2018 — but doesn’t currently have any plans to send its astronauts there. Instead, India is following up its 2008 lunar probe mission with another uncrewed science mission.
The 21st Century space race to the moon is looking decidedly more cooperative than the last time around. International cooperation among government space agencies will prove particularly important for nations like Japan that’ll need hardware and spacecraft to reach to the Moon.
The race to the Moon among China, Japan and India has been dubbed the Asian space race, but Russia and the US will have interesting roles to play in the race, too.
JAXA is hoping to join NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway mission to construct to a space station in orbit around the Moon. JAXA is hoping to snag a spot on the lunar space station from which it can begin sending astronauts down to the surface of the Moon, but the agency hasn’t officially become part of the mission yet. JAXA will likely release more information about its lunar ambitions during the country’s International Space Exploration Forum in March 2018.
The EU’s ESA wants to build a collaborative and multi-national lunar community, called the Moon Village, which will be open to any and all interested parties and nations.
“The ‘Moon Village’ concept seeks to transform this paradigm shift into a set of concrete actions and create an environment where both international cooperation and the commercialization of space can thrive,” said ESA’s director-general, Johann-Dietrich Woerner, in a statement.
The proposal has garnered support and funding commitments from all 22 countries that make up the ESA, and has attracted interest from some outside nations, like China.
Russia eyes partnership with China
China could (and likely will) leverage a number of international partnerships to help it reduce the costs of its future space missions, as the country jockeys for regional dominance in space. The country is planning to use its new, larger space station to host payloads from other countries, as established through its agreement with the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs. Rumors are that Russia is considering moving its ISS operations over to China’s new space station once it’s built — and the country may even help China build an ISS competitor. Russian Academy of Cosmonauts chief analyst Andrei Ionin told Russian press earlier this year that Russia and China may partner in the future.
“The key question here is not about the size of the station or its location in space — whether it is going to orbit the Earth or the Moon,” Ionin told Pravda Report. “The key question is about international cooperation. We need to understand who our partners are. All other questions are secondary. Clearly, Russia and China can build such stations, but this is not a question of technologies or finance. I believe that Russia and China can be very good partners at this point.”
At the recent GLEX 2017 conference, Sun Weigang, chief engineer at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, said construction of the larger space station is on track, pending the flight readiness of China’s Long March 5B, which will carry up its segments for assembly.
China’s Chang’e-4 2018 mission, to deliver an uncrewed lander and rover on the dark side of the Moon, will carry science payloads from four countries: Saudi Arabia, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany. China is reportedly in talks with Russia for key hardware development to help it realize its lunar ambitions, too.
China has also signaled its interest in participating in the proposed Moon Village concept. China’s National Space Administration entered into talks earlier this year with ESA for developing the lunar base.
US continues to isolate itself
But international cooperation isn’t exactly on the table for NASA, at least not where China is concerned. Federal law passed by Congress in 2011 prohibit any collaboration between NASA or NASA employees and Chinese officials without express Congressional permission — which helped to keep Chinese astronauts and even China-led science experiments from making it to the ISS. In June, the first Chinese-built experiment was delivered to the ISS via an unprecedented deal with NanoRacks.
NASA’s active administrator Robert Lightfoot has hinted the US may rethink its policy on China for space missions in the future. Speaking at a budget hearing, Lightfoot told members of the House space subcommittee, “for us, we have to decide at some point what’s going to be our interaction with them.”