China Races America to Colonize the Moon’s South Pole

DR. JIM RICE | THE WEICHERT REPORT

Earlier this year, the Administrator, Zhang Kejian, of the China National Space Administration stated that China aims to build a scientific research station in the South Polar region of the moon and realize manned lunar exploration missions in about ten years. However, in 2018 Chinese Space officials stated that China aims to land a man on the moon by 2036.

So why are they now advancing this date?

The timing of this Chinese announcement was very interesting indeed. It fell 29 days after President Trump’s bold new initiative to put American astronauts back on the Moon by 2024. In Trump’s plan America will go to the South Polar regions. I think that we are starting to see a US – China race shape up in terms of manned missions to the Moon.

Key strategic lunar resources are all about location, location, location and not all regions are created equally. The lunar South Pole is widely considered by experts to be the ideal location for the establishment of a manned lunar base in order to get access to numerous and highly valuable lunar resources. This will be established upon a first come, first served basis. 

Choice regions of the lunar South Pole are prime real estate for establishing a manned science outpost and extracting key strategic lunar resources such as water ice which will be used of both life support and propellant. Technically, this process is called In-Situ Resource Utilization or ISRU. The water ice is found in permanently shadowed crater regions of the pole which shield it from sunlight and subsequent sublimation.

Select regions of this polar area also get near continuous sunlight which is yet another valuable resource that can be used for power generation, manufacturing and processing. Actually, no lunar real estate is ever 100% illuminated, though a few peaks of the South Pole are lit by the Sun more than 90% of the time.

My late friend and colleague Dr. Paul Spudis said it best, “Learning how to use non-terrestrial resources has never been done in space. Because the Moon is close and accessible, it is an ideal natural laboratory where we can acquire and practice these skills. The use of non-terrestrial resources is an essential skill that spacefaring people must master.

Lunar return provides us the opportunity to begin this task. We are fortunate to have such a useful body so close-by in space. Once we have a resource utilization operation established on the Moon, we can begin the development of a true spacefaring transportation system — one that is reusable, maintainable, and extensible. By creating this space infrastructure — one that will provide routine access to cislunar space and beyond — we will learn how to live off our world and be better prepared to begin our migration to places beyond the Earth-Moon system.” 

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s laser altimeter has mapped the topography near the Moon’s south pole. High points (red) on the rims of Malapert and Shackleton craters receive sunlight about 90% of the time (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center).

For decades Paul worked tirelessly for an American manned lunar return and the mining of the Moon for its valuable resources. Sadly, Paul passed away on August 29, 2018 and will not see his lifelong dream come to fruition. I’m hoping that something worthy of his name will follow upon our return in 2024!

Dr. Jim Rice is a scientist who has worked in the defense and space industry for 30 years. He was the geology team leader on the Mars Exploration Rover Project (Spirit and Opportunity) and he has mission experience working on the Mars Odyssey Orbiter. Rice was the Associate Project Scientist for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Projects. He also writes on defense and space issues.

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