As nations like China and the United States want to increase their rare earth element mining and manufacturing, competition to mine in space is heating up. Unlike the Cold War struggle between the USSR and the US, when the objective was to establish moral and scientific supremacy for a political regime, the stakes in this contemporary moon race differ.
Both nations’ lunar and cislunar space programs aim to establish a permanent presence in the lunar and cislunar regions. Whoever lands on the moon first may lay the groundwork for further missions, during which nations seek scientific discoveries, exploit water and other resources, and build communities.
Conflict arises as several nations form alliances and send spaceships to the moon without human beings. India made history in August when an unmanned spacecraft touched down near the moon’s south pole, where ice becomes water, making it the first nation to do so. Recent attempts by Japan and Israel to land robotic spacecraft on the moon’s surface were similarly unsuccessful.
China has invested substantially in rocket technology and space exploration over the last decade, and its expenditure has quadrupled in the past five years, compared to the United States space budget of over US$59.8 billion in 2021. Even with an anticipated budget of $16.18 billion in 2021, China will only be spending a fraction of what the United States allocates.
The most recent of China’s five Chang’e missions, which returned lunar samples in 2020, was launched in the same year. Its goal for next year is to merge the two missions into one, making it the first nation to return samples from the far side. Defense Intelligence officials have said that, despite progress, China probably does not know more about the moon’s composition than the United States.
Throughout their 1969–1972 mission, the Apollo spacecraft returned over 800 pounds of lunar samples, some of which included trace quantities of rare earth elements. According to scientists, such minerals are probably not often found on the moon.
Establishing a long-term lunar outpost would allow scientists to explore the moon’s resources in depth, which would help them decide how to put them to use. According to some remote sensing, unexplored or under-sampled areas may have large amounts of rare earth elements.