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Chinese Lunar Landing Prompts Debate About Moon Exploitation

  • Henry Ridgwell

Last month, China successfully landed an unmanned probe on the Moon. The mission renewed a debate about the potential exploitation of the Moon’s resources and who exactly owns the Earth’s only natural satellite.

China’s Chang’e 3 mission was the first so-called soft lunar landing in 37 years. The spacecraft carried a solar-powered buggy called Jade Rabbit, which is digging the Moon’s surface and conducting geological surveys.

Deputy Chief Designer of the probe, Jia Yang, is excited about what lies ahead.

He explained that Jade Rabbit is now heading to the west, towards a pyramid-like rock which has a different shape from others. It could be part of a meteorite, he adds.

Prior to the mission, Chinese scientists described the Moon as being a potential source of minerals. Currently, no one can claim ownership of the Moon, says Planetary Science Professor Ian Crawford, of Birkbeck College University of London.

“The legal status of the Moon is governed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, Article 2 of which specifically prohibits nation states from appropriating the Moon," said Crawford.

Back in 1967, the Treaty envisaged that only nation states would have the capacity to launch such missions. Professor Crawford says it is time the Treaty was updated.

“Within the next few decades the economic exploitation of the Moon will be technically feasible," said Crawford. "Even if there are not minerals to be extracted, the space tourism industry is gathering a lot of momentum so one might imagine interest in sending people to the Moon as just fare-paying passengers. None of this is currently covered by the 1967 Treaty.”

Almost 22 kilometers (71,000 feet) above the Mojave desert in California, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo made its third powered supersonic test flight last week. The company plans to take its first fare-paying passengers into space this summer.

As interest in space exploration heats up, a provocative London exhibition titled ‘Republic of the Moon’ explores the concept of lunar ownership.

One of the pieces, by artist Katie Paterson, involves the classical composition "Moonlight Sonata" by Beethoven being translated into Morse code. The signal is bounced off the surface of the Moon back to Earth -- where it is performed on a self-playing grand piano. The Moon’s craters absorb and disrupt the signal.

“We had this idea that the Republic of the Moon would be in a sense an imaginary country," said curator of the exhibition Rob La Frenais. "But all the artists in Republic of the Moon have got their own individual reflections on what the Moon means to them.”

The Chinese lunar landing may have sparked a debate over the future exploitation of the Moon, but scientists agree the mission marks an exciting new chapter in the exploration of space.