China launched its first lunar probe into space Monday morning, marking the country’s first attempt at soft-landing a spacecraft on an extraterrestrial body.
If the probe continues on track, the Chang’e 3 moon lander and its robotic rover Yutu will touch down on the lunar surface by mid-December, becoming the first spacecraft to soft-land onto the lunar surface in 37 years.
Given China’s propensity to make wild territorial claims, it stands to reason that Beijing might declare the Sinus Iridum region of the moon, also known as the Bay of Rainbows, as its own.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds. While it’s hard to keep track, China has territorial disputes with almost 20 countries by my count. What most claims have in common are suspected crude oil, natural gas and mineral deposits, as well as some mighty good fishing.
I’m pretty sure the moon doesn’t have much oil, gas or fish to speak of, but there are said to be potential riches in lunar minerals and metals.
“The moon is full of resources—mainly rare earth elements, titanium, and uranium, which the Earth is really short of, and these resources can be used without limitation,” Ouyang Ziyuan, a top Chinese scientist and a moon mission advisor, told the BBC.
Ouyang said China will devote its next two moon missions to bringing back samples.
In recent years, a number of nascent asteroid-mining firms such as Planetary Resources, Inc. of Bellevue, Washington have announced plans to prospect space rocks orbiting near Earth for rare earths or platinum, National Geographic reported.
“Asteroids have been hitting the moon for a long time, especially on the back side,” Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace said at a briefing, arguing that mining rare earths and other valuable resources would be even easier on the lunar surface. He described future miners at these asteroid impact sites as “just walking around, picking stuff up from the ground.”
Back to reality, the South China Morning Post notes that everything to do with space exploration is excruciatingly expensive. “Even getting stuff to low-Earth orbit, a couple of hundred kilometers up, costs more than US$20,000 a kilogram. Going higher costs considerably more,” the SCMP wrote. The moon is 380,000 kilometers away.
Leaving aside the costs of moon rockets and the return of heavy minerals from the moon to Earth, a number of legal obstacles stands in the way of moon miners, says space law expert James Dunstan of Mobius Legal Group in Springfield, Virginia.
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits nations from claiming territorial rights on the moon, which would seem to negate any claim of sovereignty that China might make. Further, the Moon Treaty of 1979 declares that part of any samples obtained must be made available to all countries for research.
Space exploration advocates have called for lunar property rights since the early days of moon landings. Referring to the potential payoff to mining the moon, Bigelow said that “without property rights there would be no justification for investment and the risk of life.”
Nonetheless, China’s Chang’e 3 aims to unleash the six-wheeled, solar-powered Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, lunar rover to look for natural resources and conduct geological surveys with ground-penetrating radar when it lands mid-month. China hopes to become the third nation, after the USA and the former Soviet Union, to achieve a difficult “soft landing” on the moon, whereby the spacecraft and equipment remain intact, said USA Today.
As usual, China’s netizens had a lot to say about the latest news from China’s military-backed, state-run space program.
“This is brilliant! I just watched Gravity yesterday,” read a typically celebratory message from one user. “It’s wonderful for China to explore space. This makes us all proud.”
But there were also a good number of lunar mission detractors.
“Let me ask, have you gotten the permission from your people? How can you boast of being a responsible rising power?” fumed user Zhangqi-2012. “Who cares if the ‘Jade Rabbit’ lands on the moon? Are the people well fed and are they dressed warmly?”
“I have only one thing to say,” wrote another user named Xiao Yu Qi Dao. “In China, improving people’s social benefits, controlling surging housing prices and investing more in education are more difficult than going to space!”
Weibo-griping aside, the notion of China potentially making a territorial claim on the moon isn’t so far-fetched.
Aside from declaring a new aerial zone like it did a few weeks ago, China recently announced a crackdown on archaeological excavation, specifically historical shipwrecks in disputed waters, claiming that the submerged remains of Chinese vessels offer evidence for territorial claims.
Likewise, China could make the same claim about the abandoned remains of Chang’e 3 and Jade Rabbit on the lunar surface—China watchers have seen stranger things.