Why countries are racing to the Moon

Elon Musk has called for a Moon base; rivate companies are vying for a slice of the Moon pie, lured by Google's XPRIZE

By Marc Norman & Penelope King (Spaced Out)

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Published: Thu 23 Nov 2017, 9:51 PM

Last updated: Thu 23 Nov 2017, 11:56 PM

No human has been to the Moon since 1972 and only 12 people have ever done it - all of them American men. 
But that list could soon be getting a lot longer. Why the Moon? Haven't we already been there, done that? Well, yes. But now there are new reasons motivating countries to reach the Moon.
Human and other missions to the Moon are planned by India, China and Russia, as well as Japan and Europe. South Korea and North Korea are also looking towards the Moon. 
Even NASA seems to be getting its mojo back, recently announcing a revamped vision for a Deep Space Gateway that includes a port of call at the Moon en route to Mars and beyond. Elon Musk has also called for a Moon base. 
Private companies are vying for a slice of the Moon pie, lured by Google's multi-million dollar XPRIZE that challenges entrants to develop low-cost methods for robotic space exploration. 
A space race of sorts seems to back on in earnest, for five reasons. 
Reason 1: A vision for innovation
In the past and till now, one reason that space attracts interest and investment is that humans seem driven to explore and push the limits, physically and viscerally. But space also acts as a unifying force, providing a clear vision that pushes technology and innovation forwards. 
These motivators are seen as especially important by emerging economies like India, China and Russia, which means that more established players like Europe and the USA have to work harder to keep up.
Reason 2: Economic and geopolitical advantages
Paradoxically, exploration of the Moon builds both international cooperation and competition. Even if they don't have their own space programme, countries can develop instruments to fly on spacecraft that are built and launched by other nations. For example, India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft carried instruments from Sweden, Germany, UK, Bulgaria, and the US to the Moon. This helps mesh economies and provides strong motivation to keep the peace.
Nonetheless, there are incentives to place a claim on the Moon. For example, helium-3 (an isotope of the element helium) is abundant on the Moon, but rare on Earth. It is a potential fuel for nuclear fusion, a potentially unlimited and non-polluting source of energy.
Sending a spacecraft to the Moon - even if it fails prematurely like India's Chandrayaan-1 - may provide a compelling case for recognition if the Moon were ever to be carved up into zones of research and economic development.
Russia, China, Japan, Europe and the USA landed (or crashed) spacecraft on the Moon in the decades after Apollo.
Reason 3: An easy target
Growing space agencies need successful missions, and the Moon is a tempting target. Radio communication over the relatively short distance between the Earth and Moon (384,400km) is almost instantaneous (1-2 sec). Between Earth and Mars, two-way communication times can be the better part of an hour.
The low gravity and lack of an atmosphere on the Moon also simplifies operations for orbiters and landers. Despite decades of observations, each new mission to the Moon produces new discoveries.
Japan's Selene spacecraft and India's Chandrayaan-1 mission discovered new distributions of minerals on the Moon, and probed regions of potential resources. An exciting discovery has been the presence of water ice and other organic compounds in permanently shadowed regions of the Moon that never see sunlight. If present in sufficient quantities, water ice on the Moon could be used as a resource for generating fuel or supporting human habitation.
Reason 5: We learn about Earth
Aside from the practicalities, exploration of the Moon has revealed completely new ideas about the origin of the Solar system. Prior to the Apollo missions, planets were thought to form over long periods of time by the slow agglomeration of dusty particles.
Future studies of the Moon will undoubtedly lead to even deeper insights into the origin of the Earth, our home planet. Space exploration is not only about "out there". Travel to the Moon creates jobs, technical innovations and new discoveries that improve the lives of all of us "down here".
-The Conversation
Marc Norman is Emeritus Fellow, Australian National University and Penelope King is Associate Professor, Australian National University

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