Rising power India surged to the front of the new moon race Wednesday, landing an unmanned space vehicle near the previously unvisited lunar South Pole and focusing new attention on Asia’s surging participation in the race to space.
India thus joins the exclusive club of countries that have successfully managed a controlled landing of a craft on the surface of Earth’s closest celestial neighbor, joining the U.S., the Soviet Union and China. The landing came days after a Russian unmanned mission to the same area lost control and crashed into the lunar surface.
A livestream from mission control showed hundreds of tense-looking officials of the Indian Space Research Organization, some in traditional attire, others in shirts and jackets, sitting at computers and watching visuals on a giant data screen.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, attending the BRICS summit of rising global powers in South Africa, was among millions watching online.
Officials burst into increasingly excited rounds of applause as different phases of the power descent, deceleration and landing were completed. As the vehicle made contact, officials rose from their seats, laughing and cheering.
“India is on the moon!” Mr. Modi said, over an internet link. Addressing “all the people of the world,” Mr. Modi said the feat showed what “those from the Global South are capable of.”
“We can all aspire for the moon — and beyond,” he said.
The second stage of the mission — the deployment of a lunar rover — is still pending. Even so, for the world’s most populous nation and its largest democracy — a British colony until 1947 and a land that still suffers from high levels of poverty and underdevelopment — the successful landing marks a stunning technological achievement.
The unmanned Chandrayaan-3 (“Moon Craft”) space vehicle, launched on July 14, entered lunar orbit on Aug. 5.
Though the Soviet Union put the first satellite into orbit and the first man into space, the U.S. remains the only nation to land astronauts on the moon via the Apollo launches of 1969-1972.
Wednesday’s event follows the failure of Moscow’s Luna-25 space vehicle on Sunday, which crashed into the lunar dust. The failed mission was a blow to Russia, which has sought to recapture the technical leadership and prestige of the Soviet-era space program.
It also follows an earlier Indian try in 2019 when a predecessor craft, the Chandrayaan-2, crashed on the moon’s surface.
The landing shines a renewed spotlight on the emerging race for the moon’s South Pole, with its potentially valuable lode of frozen ice, and on the role of Asian nations in the quest to explore space.
A revived space race
While the Luna-25 and Chandrayaan-3 were unmanned, U.S. space officials are hoping to land humans on the Moon again via the Artemis program, by 2025. China has said it plans a manned mission to the Moon by 2030.
More than half a century after Neil Armstrong planted his feet on the lunar surface, the resurgent moon race has been inspired by the discovery of frozen ice at the body’s South Pole in 2018. That resource has important potential for future space programs and the viability of longer-term human settlements.
It has “attracted the attention of space agencies and private companies around the world,” the Planetary Society wrote in a recent analysis. “They envision mining the water ice to produce air, drinking water, and propellant, fueling the needs of lunar habitats and even entire lunar industries in the future.”
The group estimates that there are nearly 160 billion gallons of water ice on the moon — enough to fill 240,000 Olympic pools, though that is considered a conservative estimate.
Nations may be keen to stake a claim on the ice as a resource, but the legalities of mining and drilling rights remain unresolved.
“Who gets to choose what we do with the moon?” Cathleen Lewis, who curates space programs at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, asked Popular Science. “We haven’t sorted out issues about who has mining and drilling rights.”
Asia enters the race
High-tech, millennial Asian nations, once spectators to the U.S.-Russian competition in space, have emerged as leading contenders in the renewed race to the stars.
India has been pursuing space research since 1962. It oversees one of the world’s largest satellite constellations and is preparing more Moon missions, both crewed and uncrewed, as well as unmanned missions to the planets.
Japan has been launching satellites since 1970, moving from U.S. rockets to domestic models. It has successfully landed on asteroids, with space vehicles returning to earth with data, and has also placed orbiters over both the moon and Venus.
South Korea has proven its domestic satellite launch capability with its Nuri rocket class, based on modified Russian technologies. It is pressing ahead with its own lunar-landing technologies.
China’s National Space Administration, or CNSA, oversees four spaceports, its “Long March” rocket series, the Tiangong Space Station, the Baidou satellite navigation constellation and a highly active launch program. In addition to its planned manned moon-landing program, it aims to put a space telescope into orbit and undertake a mission to explore Mars.
With so many space technologies having dual uses, NASA has, since 2011, been legally prohibited from cooperating with the CNSA — a ban some U.S. space researchers would like to change. China’s new Tiangong, unlike the long-established International Space Station, has not yet hosted any foreign astronauts.
In a reflection of multifaceted economic/strategic competition in Asia, the U.S. is inviting favored allies to join its own space programs.
The NASA-led, 27-nation Artemis Accords initiative, established in 2020, aims to send a four-person mission to the Moon. It includes traditional partners such as Israel and Britain, as well as Indo-Pacific players Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea, giving the program strength in numbers. More signatories are expected in the future, NASA officials say.
Among other things, the Artemis Accords outline principles for peaceful lunar exploration, interoperability, space resources and coordination of research and missions.
New Delhi made clear its aims when it signed onto Artemis on June 24. Indian Ambassador to the United States Taranjit Sandhu said that India “places the highest importance on the peaceful and sustainable use of outer space. … We are confident that the Artemis Accords will advance a rule-based approach to outer space.”
The space-based alliances reflect the terrestrial competition between Washington and Beijing for friends and influence in East Asia and around the world. And India has emerged as a key part of the power equation.
Though New Delhi is broadly non-aligned, it is competing with China economically and in such strategic flashpoints as the Himalayas and Bay of Bengal. The U.S. meanwhile, has sought to establish future-based trade, technological and industrial standards across the region with the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). IPEF has 14 signatories, including Australia, India, Japan and South Korea.