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NASA's head warned that China may try to claim the moon — two space scholars explain why that's unlikely to happen

China and the U.S. both have big plans for the moon, but there are a number of reasons why no country could actually claim ownership of any land there.
China and the U.S. both have big plans for the moon, but there are a number of reasons why no country could actually claim ownership of any land there. (Image credit: 3dScultor/iStock via Getty Images)

This article was originally published at The Conversation. (opens in new tab) The publication contributed the article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Svetla Ben-Itzhak (opens in new tab), Assistant Professor of Space and International Relations, Air University
R. Lincoln Hines, Assistant Professor, West Space Seminar, Air University, Air University

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently expressed concerns over China's aims in space, and in particular, that China would, in some way, claim ownership over the moon and stop other countries from exploring it. In an interview with a German newspaper (opens in new tab), Nelson cautioned that "we must be very concerned that China is landing on the moon and saying: 'It's ours now and you stay out.'" China immediately denounced the claims as a "lie (opens in new tab)."

This spat between the administrator of NASA and Chinese government officials comes at a time when both nations are actively working on missions to the moon —and China has not been shy about its lunar aspirations.

In 2019, China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. That same year, China and Russia announced joint plans (opens in new tab) to reach the South Pole of the moon by 2026. And some Chinese officials and government documents (opens in new tab) have expressed intentions to build (opens in new tab) a permanent, crewed International Lunar Research Station by 2027 (opens in new tab).

There is big difference between China — or any state for that matter — setting up a lunar base and actually "taking over" the moon. As two scholars who study space security and China's space program, we believe that neither China nor any other nation is likely to take over the moon in the near future. It is not only illegal, it is also technologically daunting — the costs of such an endeavor would be extremely high, while the potential payoffs would be uncertain.

Related: China lays out ambitious space plans for next 5 years

China is limited by international space law

Legally, China cannot take over the moon because it is against current international space law. The Outer Space Treaty, adopted in 1967 and signed by 134 countries, including China, explicitly states (opens in new tab) that "Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means" (Article II (opens in new tab)). Legal scholars have debated the exact meaning of "appropriation (opens in new tab)", but under a literal interpretation, the treaty indicates that no country can take possession of the moon and declare it an extension of its national aspirations and prerogatives. If China tried to do this, it would risk international condemnation and a potential international retaliatory response.

While no country can claim ownership of the moon, Article I (opens in new tab) of the Outer Space Treaty allows any state to explore and use outer space and celestial bodies. China will not be the only visitor (opens in new tab) to the South Pole of the moon in the near future. The U.S.-led Artemis Accords (opens in new tab) is a group of 20 countries (opens in new tab) that has plans to return humans to the moon by 2025, which will include the establishment of a research station on the lunar surface and a supporting space station in orbit called the Gateway with a planned launch in November 2024 (opens in new tab).

Even if no country can legally claim sovereignty over the moon, it is possible that China, or any other country, would attempt to gradually establish de facto control over strategically important areas through a strategy known as "salami slicing (opens in new tab)." This practice involves taking small, incremental steps to achieve a big change: Individually, those steps do not warrant a strong response, but their cumulative effect adds up to significant developments and increased control. China has recently been using this strategy in the South and East China seas (opens in new tab). Still, such a strategy takes time and can be addressed.

Controlling the moon is difficult

With a surface area of nearly 14.6 million square miles (39 million square kilometers) — or almost five times the area of Australia (opens in new tab) — any control of the moon would be temporary and localized.

More plausibly, China could attempt to secure control of specific lunar areas that are strategically valuable, such as lunar craters with higher concentrations of water ice. Ice on the moon is important because it will provide water to humans that wouldn't need to be shipped from Earth. Ice can also serve as a vital source of oxygen and hydrogen, which could be used as rocket fuel. In short, water ice is essential for ensuring the long-term sustainability and survivability of any mission to the moon or beyond.

Securing and enforcing control of strategic lunar areas would require substantial financial investments and long-term efforts. And no country could do this without everyone noticing.

Does China have the resources and capabilities?

China is investing heavily in space. In 2021, it led in number of orbital launches with a total of 55 (opens in new tab) compared to the U.S.'s 51. China is also in the top three (opens in new tab) in spacecraft deployment for 2021. China's state-owned StarNet space company is planning a megaconstellation of 12,992 satellites (opens in new tab), and the country has nearly finished building the Tiangong space station.

Going to the moon is expensive (opens in new tab); "taking over" the moon would be much more so. China's space budget — an estimated $13 billion in 2020 (opens in new tab) — is only around half that of NASA's (opens in new tab). Both the U.S. and China increased their space budgets in 2020, the U.S. by 5.6% and China by 17.1% compared to the previous year. But even with the increased spending, China does not seem to be investing the money needed to carry out the expensive, daring and uncertain mission of "taking over" the moon.

If China assumes control over some part of the moon, it would be a risky, expensive and extremely provocative action. China would risk further tarnishing its international image by breaking international law, and it may invite retaliation. All this for uncertain payoffs that remain to be determined.

This article is republished from The Conversation (opens in new tab) under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article (opens in new tab).

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Svetla Ben-Itzhak