Inside the biggest battle for cislunar space area between Earth and the moon with 100 lunar missions

Space is about to fill up with up to 100 lunar missions to be launched within the next decade.

Far from empty darkness, space seems to be getting busier than ever, outpacing interest in the moon since the Cold War space race of the 1950s and 1960s.

Several countries and private companies are planning missions to the Moon with experts predicting that the region between the Earth and the Moon, known specifically as cislunar space, could become strategically important.

There is also concern that as the area becomes more crowded, it could potentially lead to more competition over resources and positioning, as well as geopolitical conflict.

NASA’s Artemis I Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, with the Orion capsule attached, will launch in November at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The Artemis I mission will send the uncrewed spacecraft around the moon to test the vehicle’s propulsion, navigation and propulsion systems as a precursor to a later manned mission to the lunar surface

Both the US and China have ambitious lunar exploration programs in the works, with plans to land astronauts on the moon and build habitats and infrastructure in orbit.

“We see all this competing rhetoric between the US government and the Chinese government,” said Laura Forczyk, executive director of Astralytical, an Atlanta-based aerospace consulting firm. NBC.

The US is pointing the finger at China and saying, “We need to fund our space initiatives to the moon and cislunar space because China is trying to get there and claim territory.” And then Chinese politicians say the same about the United States.’

Other countries such as South Korea, UAE, India and Russia have also planned robotic missions to the moon, while private companies in the US, Japan and Israel are also racing to the moon.

Even private companies, such as SpaceX, have plans for lunar efforts, including launching a private crew on a tourist flight into lunar orbit.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying NASA's Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft is seen at sunset on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A in Cape Canaveral, in December 2021

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft is seen at sunset on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A in Cape Canaveral, in December 2021

While greater access to space brings many benefits, it also increases the potential for tensions over competing interests, which could have significant economic and political implications.

“During the Cold War, the space race was for national prestige and power,” said Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director and fellow of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to NBC news. “Now we have a better understanding of the kind of benefits that working in cislunar space can bring countries home.”

Cislunar space generally refers to the region between the Earth and the Moon, including the Moon’s surface and orbit.

Lunar missions and activities, including landing on the moon, launching from the moon, and building habitats and infrastructure on or around the moon, along with communications and navigation satellites, would all be considered to take place in cislunar space.

In November, the White House released its own strategy for interagency research on “responsible, peaceful and sustainable exploration and use of cislunar space.”

The space agencies and commercial companies looking to launch will want specific strategic orbits and trajectories,

“It may seem like the space is big, but the specific jobs we’re most interested in fill up quickly,” added Forczyk.

The sudden increase in traffic is due to launch costs becoming cheaper due to better technology and increased competition, which lowers the price of firing objects into orbit.

The potential is still untapped as there appear to be resources in space that could aid human missions, from ice deposits on the moon to precious metals in asteroids.

A rocket launched by the Indian Space Research Organization, Chandrayaan-2 (Moon Chariot 2), is seen in 2019

A rocket launched by the Indian Space Research Organization, Chandrayaan-2 (Moon Chariot 2), is seen in 2019

“Once people really thought about that, they realized that that water ice could provide substantial resources or enable the collection or gathering of resources elsewhere in the solar system,” said Marcus Holzinger, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado.

To the moon and back?

NASA has identified nine companies it believes are capable of getting their experiments to the moon (and perhaps back):

  • Astrobotic Technology (based in Pittsburgh)
  • Deep Space Systems (based in Littleton, Colorado)
  • Draper (based in Cambridge, Massachusetts)
  • Firefly Aerospace Inc. (based in Cedar Park, Texas)
  • Intuitive Machines LLC (based in Houston)
  • Lockheed Martin Space (located in Littleton, Colorado)
  • Masten Space Systems Inc. (based in Mojave, California)
  • Moon Express (located in Cape Canaveral, Florida)
  • OrbitBeyond (based in Edison, New Jersey)

Water ice could help sustain human colonies on the moon, or could be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen to fuel rockets that go into deep space.

1967 saw more than 110 countries sign the Outer Space Treaty to declare that outer space should be used to benefit all of humanity, with no single country able to claim or occupy the cosmos.

In 2020, the Artemis Accords established non-binding multilateral agreements between the US and more than a dozen countries to maintain peaceful and transparent space exploration.

“Now we kind of see the rubber coming out on the road because all of a sudden there’s potential geopolitical interests or commercial interests,” Holzinger said. “Maybe we should come up with a more nuanced approach.”

Another tricky part of cislunar space is the amount of objects already there, including satellites in low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit.

Their paths are often not circular, making them more difficult to find and follow, which brings its own set of challenges.

The farther satellites and other spacecraft are from Earth, the more difficult it is to predict their orbits with their trajectories influenced by the planet, sun, and moon.

But if people want to go beyond the moon and go to Mars, security and transparency are essential.

“Those elements have to be there,” says Jim Myers of research organization The Aerospace Corporation. “Unless we do this very thoughtfully, unless we plan, we’re going to run into all kinds of problems.”