Race to make Moon Earth’s eighth continent

Moonshot: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon. No human has set foot there since 1972.

Should we colonise the Moon? Yesterday morning, China successfully landed a spacecraft on the Moon’s far side. Some say a new age of lunar exploration (and exploitation) is beginning.

The dark side of the Moon has been the subject of hundreds of books, countless conspiracy theories, a song from the Disney film Mulan and a Pink Floyd album. And early yesterday morning, the world watched as China’s space agency successfully landed a probe there for the first time in history.

Chang’e-4 will be exploring the geology of the Moon’s far side and conducting biological experiments. (It will not be doing this entirely in the dark; both sides of the Moon experience daytime. It is a concept called tidal locking that means the Earth only ever sees one side.)

China’s mission has been hailed as a breakthrough in space exploration — and the start of a new space race. The Moon will play a major role as countries — and companies — look for opportunities in space.

For example, in 2016 the head of the European Space Agency, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, announced that he wants to build a “village” on the Moon. His vision is shared by NASA experts who claim that we could build a human colony on the Moon by 2022. The base could be used for science experiments, tourism and as a launchpad for deep space exploration.

But wrapped in this vision, there is also a business opportunity. The Moon is rich with minerals including titanium, aluminium and even gold. In recent years, companies have been investing big money in space mining programmes.

One company, Moon Express, wants to start mining by 2020. Its vice president has described the Moon as “Earth’s eighth continent”, which he hopes can be mined like “every other continent on Earth”.

But before this can happen, legal uncertainties must be resolved. On the one hand, the United Nations insists that the Moon’s resources are the “common heritage of mankind”. A 1967 UN treaty specifically forbids any state from claiming ownership of the Moon.

On the other hand, in 2015 former President Barack Obama signed legislation giving American citizens the right to mine resources from outer space.

So while legal wrangling continues, the question remains: should humans colonise the Moon?

Space base

Of course, some say. By mining minerals from desolate areas of the Moon, we could ease the pressure on Earth’s resources. And building a permanent lunar base will bring a golden age of space exploration. Once we have settled there, what is to stop us building a home on Mars? We must start thinking beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

The Moon must be protected, others argue. Do we really want to allow unscrupulous corporations to plunder the Moon purely for the sake of profit? And besides, the Moon would make a miserable home — it is constantly blasted by radiation and bombarded by asteroids. Earth is our home, and we should focus on improving lives here.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live on the Moon?
  2. Should we mine the Moon for its resources?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have been asked to design a state-of-the-art base to be built on the Moon. What would it look like? What special features would it have? How would it work? Draw your design and share it with your classmates.
  2. Watch the two videos in Become An Expert. Both imagine future colonisation of the Moon, but in different ways. Do you think these predictions will come true? Would it be good if they did?

Some People Say...

“Some things just can't be described. And stepping onto the Moon was one of them.”

Buzz Aldrin

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Only 12 people have ever walked on the Moon. These were all astronauts involved in the American Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972. In recent years, however, investment in private space ventures has risen dramatically, with an estimated $3.9 billion invested in 2017. In 2014, the figure was just $534 million.
What do we not know?
Currently, a private company is yet to land a probe on the surface of the Moon, let alone fully operational mining infrastructure. We do not know when or if this will be achieved. Equally, while NASA and the European Space Agency have discussed plans for a base on the Moon, we do not know if the project will actually go ahead.

Word Watch

Chang’e-4
The probe was launched from China in early December last year, and orbited the Moon from December 12. It landed on the Moon’s far side just before 2:30am UK time. As there is no direct link to Earth, it is sending its data to a satellite to be bounced back home.
Tidal locking
It takes the Moon the same time to rotate on its axis (28 days) as it does to orbit Earth. This means that one side is always facing us.
Space race
The 20th century space race between the US and Soviet Union led to the biggest ever breakthroughs in space exploration, including the first man on the Moon. Some believe China’s success with Chang’e-4 could spark a new race with the US and Russia.
2022
It is suggested that this could be achieved for as little as $10 billion.
Treaty
Specifically the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Many argue that this agreement forms the basic framework for international space law.
State
Because the treaty specifically refers to states, some argue that this allows private companies to establish themselves on the Moon and mine its resources.