Fight for raw materials may be part of US-China space race, says expert

Credit: Adobe Stock
Credit: Adobe Stock

As the technological 'space race' between the US and China continues, the fight for raw materials could also become an element of this rivalry, believes Dr. Jakub Ryzenko from the Space Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

In an interview with PAP, he discusses this rivalry, as well as the possibilities of cooperation and possible 'space' conflicts between countries.

Dr. Jakub Ryzenko is an expert in the field of space policy, international cooperation in space ventures and the use of satellite and drone technology in the area of security. He served, among others, as the head of the Polish Space Office and advisor to the Ministry of Economy in the field of space policy. Currently, he heads the Crisis Information Centre of the Space Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.

PAP: The head of NASA Bill Nelson recently said that the US is racing with China in space, also when it comes to conquering the Moon. Does China have a chance in this competition?

Dr. Jakub Ryzenko: That depends on the time frame. I think that in the case of the Moon, their chances are slim, but the race is not ever yet. They may have better chances in the long run, for example in the race to Mars. China is developing its space sector very intensively now, just like the US under President Kennedy. Over the last two or three decades, they have made a huge leap, drawing heavily on Soviet and Russian, but also American experience. China is already talking about an Apollo-style Moon landing before the end of the decade. The Chinese space programme is developing in accordance with the time assumptions and previously declared goals. It is undeniable that it is run in a smart, focused manner, with an excellent strategy of using the experience of other space players. Thanks to this, they could, for example, achieve several goals in one stage, goals that previously required a series of separate activities.

PAP: There is another to the story?

J.R.: It seems that the Chinese space program, much like the American one in the past, is governmental and centralized. It depends mainly on state agencies. It is the state that builds systems, for example rockets and ships, at most with the help of private companies.

In the West, however, it has been different for some 15 years - various types of competences have largely been taken over by private enterprises. For example, NASA is already using SpaceX's orbital transportation services instead of having ships built each time. It will be similar with some aspects of the operation of the planned Gateway station orbiting the Moon. The communications system for operations on the lunar surface is likely to be fully contracted to a private contractor who will build the entire infrastructure, including lunar satellites. The same may be true of the American lunar landers. A capitalist ecosystem is forming. If it turns out that it is possible to go beyond government-funded activities in this area and reap profits, one can count on a huge development dynamics. It seems that currently there is no such approach in China. The principles of capitalism may therefore give the US an edge.

PAP: The head of NASA drew attention to lunar resources, saying that China may want to reach for them under the guise of scientific research. However, the US and other countries are also talking about using these resources. When will that become real?

J.R.: Today, no one seems to be able to give a business justification that the extraction of a certain raw material would actually be profitable and prove that the Moon is indeed optimal for this purpose. For example, it may be more profitable to use asteroids rich in rare metals. Still, the fight for raw materials can certainly become an element of rivalry. In two or three decades, their extraction may become part of the global economy. The head of NASA may have meant that China might want to question a certain logic of international law that we do not extend national sovereignty to celestial bodies. They are to remain a common good.

PAP: The Moon is large, but probably it will not be possible to exploit it everywhere, at least at first...

J.R.: It is worth saying that most of the planned activities are to be carried out in a small area, near the south pole of the Moon, where water presence is suspected. It is also an advantageous location for many other reasons, for example when it comes to using the station orbiting the Moon. One can imagine that an entity or state will occupy a certain area and claim that it is their property. In practice, however, such claims will not be recognized by other players.

PAP: Surely, in space we should help each other, right?

J.R.: The US clearly emphasizes this and calls for an open game - so that cooperation is possible at least in dangerous situations, for example in the face of a threat to human life. At the same time, they propose cooperation in the area of communication or airlock standards. Remember that in the US, China is banned from direct cooperation when it comes to the space industry. This is because it is suspected that earlier such activities may have been a form of Chinese industrial espionage and contributed to the acquisition of know-how.

PAP: However, competition is usually good - it pushes players to develop and improve quality. Can the race to the Moon be a good thing in this sense?

J.R.: The US and Luxembourg have already introduced legal provisions regulating the exploitation of space resources by commercial entities. They cannot become owners of lunar plots, but what they extract from these plots becomes their property. Currently, it is rather forward-thinking, but such regulations may be the foundation for investing in the exploitation of the Moon.

PAP: Can the economic and technological race escalate so much that we should be afraid of the militarization of the Moon?

J.R.: According to international law, the Moon is to be not only 'neutralized', but also demilitarized. Not only can no military operations be conducted there, but - with specific exceptions - no installations or military personnel can be deployed there either. It's a bit like the Antarctic law. At the same time, remember that we are constantly dealing with an intense arms race in space. Today, the use of satellites is critical for conducting military operations on Earth. This was evident in the publicized example of Starlink devices supporting Ukraine, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. While the militarization of space around Earth will continue, I hope it won't necessarily be the case on the Moon.

PAP: Taking all this into account, do you think that the expansion of humanity into space will help people unite, or will we rather transfer our conflicts there?

J.R.: Unfortunately, although space is a new ocean we are just beginning to sail, the nature of state interests remains unchanged. As they explore and expand, there is always geostrategic competition - be it on land, the oceans or in the Arctic. At the moment, it seems that in space we will observe the same phenomenon. Perhaps it will be more orderly, regulated, less wild. I mean, for example, maintaining the principle of not transferring state sovereignty to celestial bodies.

On the other hand, in the long run, the history we know from Earth may repeat itself. Over time, settlements on other bodies, first on the Moon or in Earth orbit, may begin to become more and more autonomous, until they finally demand the right to decide their own fate, just like colonies did. I think it could happen in the 50s or 60s of this century at the earliest.

PAP: And what about now?

J.R.: At the moment, resources at the lunar south pole, which is attractive for exploration, are limited, as is the number of available valuable asteroids. This gives us reasons to compete. Let's hope it will be a commercial activity and not a conflict.

PAP - Science in Poland, Marek Matacz

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