The moon is hot now.
By some estimates, up to 100 lunar missions could be launched into space over the next decade – the level of interest in the Moon far surpasses the Cold War space race that saw the first humans set foot on the lunar surface.
With many countries and private companies now focusing on missions to the Moon, experts say the pre-lunar space – the area between the Earth and the Moon – could become strategically important, potentially opening up competition for resources and positioning, and even sparking geopolitical conflicts.
“We’re already seeing this competitive rhetoric between the U.S. government and the Chinese government,” said Laura Forczyk, executive director of Astralytical, an Atlanta-based space consulting firm. “The United States points to China and says, ‘We need to fund our space initiatives to the moon and pre-lunar space because China is trying to get there and take over territory.’ And then Chinese politicians say the same thing about the United States.”
Both the US and China have robust lunar exploration programs in the pipeline, with plans not only to land astronauts on the moon, but also to build surface habitats and infrastructure in orbit. Nor are they the only nations interested in the moon: South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, India and Russia are among the other countries planning robotic missions.
Even commercial companies have lunar ambitions, with SpaceX preparing to launch a private crewed tourist flight into lunar orbit this year, and other private companies in the US, Japan and Israel racing to the moon.
Increased access to space – and the Moon – brings many benefits to humanity, but it also increases the potential for tensions over competing interests, which experts say could have far-reaching economic and political consequences.
“During the Cold War, the space race was about national prestige and power,” said Kaitlyn Johnson, associate director and member of the Aviation Safety Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We now have a better understanding of the types of benefits that activities in pre-lunar space can bring to homecoming countries.”
Although definitions sometimes differ, cislunar space generally refers to the space between the Earth and the Moon, including the surface and orbit of the Moon. Any nation or entity that intends to establish a lunar presence or has ambitions to explore deeper into the Solar System has a vested interest in operating in pre-lunar space with communications and navigation satellites or outposts serving as intermediate stations between the Earth and the Moon.
With so many lunar missions planned for the next decade, space agencies and commercial companies will likely hunt for strategic orbits and trajectories, Forczyk said.
“It may seem like a lot of space, but the specific orbits that interest us the most fill up quickly,” she added.
Much of the increased activity in pre-lunar space is due to the significant drop in launch costs over the past decade, while advances in technology and increasing competition have driven down the cost of sending objects into orbit. At the same time, planetary science missions have given humanity a glimpse into resources available in space, from ice deposits on the moon to precious metals in asteroids, said Marcus Holzinger, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“Once people started to really think about it, they realized that water ice could provide significant resources or enable resources to be harvested or stored elsewhere in the solar system,” he said.
Water ice could help support human colonies on the moon, for example, or be split into oxygen and hydrogen to power rockets on longer journeys into space.
With so much to gain, conflicts between nations or commercial entities may arise.
In 2021, Holzinger co-authored a report titled “A Primer on Cislunar Space” to help US government officials understand the ins and outs of cislunar space. Holzinger said it wasn’t intended as a strategic document, but rather to inform those in the military and government who are interested in cislunar operations.
This interest is obvious: last year, the Space Force identified cislunar operations as a development priority, and in April it created Space Defense Squadron 19 to oversee cislunar space. In November, the White House released its own interagency research strategy for “responsible, peaceful and sustainable exploration and use of pre-lunar space.”
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which more than 110 countries were parties, essentially declared that the exploration and use of space should benefit all mankind and that no country could claim or occupy any part of space. Recently signed in 2020, the Artemis Accords established non-binding multilateral agreements between the United States and a dozen countries to maintain peaceful and transparent space exploration.
Holzinger said these deals are “easy” when tangible economic and geopolitical interests are not involved.
“Now we’re seeing rubber get on the road because there’s suddenly potentially geopolitical interests or commercial interests,” he said. “We may need to come up with a more nuanced approach.”
Creating a sustainable and safe environment for cislunar operations will be critical, but the very nature of the area presents its own challenges.
Situational awareness in cislunar space, or the ability to know where objects are at all times, is challenging because of its vastness compared to the volume of space around the Earth, including low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit, said Patrick Binning, who oversees space solutions programs for national security challenges at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
“The volume of cislunar compared to the volume below geostationary orbit is 2,000 times larger, so finding things and tracking things in this huge volume is a huge challenge.” he said.
It is also more difficult to detect satellites and other spacecraft at such great distances from Earth, and in some cases more difficult to predict their paths.
This is because objects in cislunar orbit are affected by three different gravitational forces: the Earth, the Moon and the Sun, Johnson said.
“It’s a three-body system, which means that not all orbits are nice and round or as predictable as those near Earth’s orbit,” she said.
All of these factors can make pre-lunar traffic management difficult, especially if adversaries are deliberately trying to hide their activities there.
However, if humans intend to settle permanently on the moon and venture to Mars, it will be necessary to prioritize safety, sustainability and transparency, said Jim Myers, senior vice president of the group-funded research organization based in El Segundo, California.
“These elements have to be there,” Myers said. “If we don’t do it in a very thoughtful way, if we don’t plan, we’re going to get into all sorts of trouble.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com