Expert Voices

India's Chandrayaan-3 landed on the south pole of the moon − a space policy expert explains what this means for India and the global race to the moon

A crowd of engineers cheering with inset photo of spacecraft on moon
Engineers clapping during Chandrayaan 3's touchdown. (Image credit: ISRO)

India made history as the first country to land near the south pole of the moon with its Chandrayaan-3 lander on Aug. 23, 2023. This also makes it the first country to land on the moon since China in 2020.

India is one of several countries — including the U.S. with its Artemis program — endeavoring to land on the moon. The south pole of the moon is of particular interest, as its surface, marked by craters, trenches and pockets of ancient ice, hasn’t been visited until now.

The Conversation U.S. asked international affairs expert Mariel Borowitz about this moon landing's implications for both science and the global community.

Related: Watch Chandrayaan-3's Pragyan rover take its '1st steps' on the moon (video)

Why are countries like India looking to go to the moon?

Countries are interested in going to the moon because it can inspire people, test the limits of human technical capabilities and allow us to discover more about our solar system.

The moon has a historical and cultural significance that really seems to resonate with people – anyone in the world can look up at the night sky, see the moon and understand how amazing it is that a spacecraft built by humans is roaming around the surface.

The moon also presents a unique opportunity to engage in both international cooperation and competition in a peaceful, but highly visible, way.

The fact that so many nations – the United States, Russia, China, India, Israel – and even commercial entities are interested in landing on the moon means that there are many opportunities to forge new partnerships.

These partnerships can allow nations to do more in space by pooling resources, and they encourage more peaceful cooperation here on Earth by connecting individual researchers and organizations.

There are some people who also believe that exploration of the moon can provide economic benefits. In the near term, this might include the emergence of startup companies working on space technology and contributing to these missions. India has seen a surge in space startups recently.

Eventually, the moon may provide economic benefits based on the natural resources that can be found there, such as waterhelium-3 and rare Earth elements.

Are we seeing new global interest in space?

Over the last few decades, weve seen a significant increase in the number of nations involved in space activity. This is very apparent when it comes to satellites that collect imagery or data about the Earth, for example. More than 60 nations have been involved in these types of satellite missions. Now were seeing this trend expand to space exploration, and particularly the moon.

The successful landing prompted celebrations across the country, like this one in Mumbai. (Image credit: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

In some ways, the interest in the moon is driven by similar goals as in the first space race in the 1960s – demonstrating technological capabilities and inspiring young people and the general public. However, this time it’s not just two superpowers competing in a race. Now we have many participants, and while there is still a competitive element, there is also an opportunity for cooperation and forging new international partnerships to explore space.

Also, with all these new actors and the technical advances of the last 60 years, there is the potential to engage in more sustainable exploration. This could include building moon bases, developing ways to use lunar resources and eventually engaging in economic activities on the moon based on natural resources or tourism.

How does India’s mission compare with moon missions in other countries?

Indias accomplishment is the first of its kind and very exciting, but its worth noting that its one of seven missions currently operating on and around the moon.

Students in India prayed for the safe landing of Chandrayaan-3. (Image credit: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

In addition to Indias Chandrayaan-3 rover near the south pole, there is also South Korea’s Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, which is studying the moons surface to identify future landing sites; the NASA-funded CAPSTONE spacecraft, which was developed by a space startup company; and NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The CAPSTONE craft is studying the stability of a unique orbit around the moon, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is collecting data about the moon and mapping sites for future missions.

Also, while India Chandrayaan-2 rover crashed, the accompanying orbiter is still operational. China Chang’e-4 and Chang’e-5 landers are still operating on the moon as well.

Other nations and commercial entities are working to join in. Russia Luna-25 mission crashed into the moon three days before the Chandrayaan-3 landed, but the fact that Russia developed the rover and got so close is still a significant achievement.

The same could be said for the lunar lander built by the private Japanese space company ispace. The lander crashed into the moon in April 2023.

Why choose to explore the south pole of the moon?

The south pole of the moon is the area where nations are focused for future exploration. All of NASA 13 candidate landing locations for the Artemis program are located near the south pole.

This area offers the greatest potential to find water ice, which could be used to support astronauts and to make rocket fuel. It also has peaks that are in constant or near-constant sunlight, which creates excellent opportunities for generating power to support lunar activities.

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Mariel Borowitz
Associate Professor of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology

Mariel Borowitz is an Associate Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology and director of the Nunn School Program on International Affairs, Science, and Technology. Her research deals with international space policy issues, focusing particularly on global developments related to remote sensing satellites and challenges to space security and sustainability. Her book, “Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Environmental Satellite Data," published by MIT Press, examines trends in the development of data sharing policies governing Earth observing satellites, as well as interactions with the growing commercial remote sensing sector. Her work has been published in Science, Strategic Studies Quarterly, Space Policy, Astropolitics, and New Space. Her research has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Dr. Borowitz completed a detail as a policy analyst for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC from 2016 to 2018. In 2022, she testified to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics in a hearing titled, "Space Situational Awareness: Guiding the Transition to a Civil Capability."

Dr. Borowitz earned a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a Masters degree in International Science and Technology Policy from the George Washington University. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.