China’s New Wealth-Creation Scheme: Mining the Moon

Jack H. Burke

On January 3, 2019, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) soft-landed a spacecraft, the Chang’e-4 (嫦娥四号) robotic lander and rover, on the far side of the moon, the first such landing in history. Chang’e-4, named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology, touched down in the Von Kármán crater in the lunar southern hemisphere and then released its rover, Yutu-2 (玉兔二号), to explore the lunar landscape. Yutu-2 has proven a great success. As of June 10, the rover, named after the “Jade Rabbit,” a companion of the moon goddess, had traveled over 212 meters across the lunar surface, giving the far side of the moon “its first set of rover tracks,” as Mike Wall put it last January. The Chang’e-4 mission comes in the wake of China’s publicized Chang’e-3 (嫦娥三号) mission in 2013. That was a historic mission in its own right, achieving the first lunar soft landing of any kind since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 probe in 1976.

The Chinese space program has, in short, become a force to be reckoned with.

The Chinese government is increasingly determined to expand China’s space capabilities. President Xi Jinping in 2016 declared his intention to make China a “space giant.” Beijing views “long-term space investment” — specifically, the goal of wealth creation, obtaining resources, and establishing a permanent human presence in space — key to what Lieutenant General Zhang Yulin People’s Liberation Army has called “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” And the moon is at the heart of China’s plans.

In the 2016 white paper on space activities, released by the Information Office of the Chinese State Council, the government outlined how its space program is oriented toward “economic and social development,” as opposed to NASA’s model, which remains, to this day, more focused on “space exploration” and “scientific discovery.” China views space exploration as a way to expand its economy and encourage national development. As the technology for extraterrestrial mining develops and the permanent human occupation of space becomes more feasible, Beijing is devoting more effort to the space-based economic opportunities just on the horizon. The moon, especially, offers vast opportunities for mining and the production of space-based solar-power installations, which have the potential to increase the national energy output exponentially and give China an immense advantage in what Ian Morris in Real Clear Defense recently called the “new space race.” As opposed to the original “space race,” dedicated largely to scientific exploration and technological “firsts,” the rapidly unfolding new space race is about making space profitable. Participants to in the new space race look to establish a long-term, strategically and economically salient presence beyond Earth — in cislunar space, on the moon itself, and, ultimately, beyond.

In “China in Space: Ambitions and Possible Conflict,” a brilliant article in Strategic Studies Quarterly (Spring 2018), the senior U.S. Air Force-sponsored academic journal, researcher Namrata Goswami writes:

China’s space ambitions are unique and have the full backing of the Communist Party of China (CPC). . . . The CPC aims for China’s space program to result in enormous economic dividends. Investment in space technology is perceived as a means to revive state-owned enterprises as well as inspire private start-ups.

In other words, the Chinese government intends to coordinate with space-technology corporations, with the goal of bolstering the country’s domestic industry by taking advantage of the newly forming space economy. Indeed, the space industry is forecast to be worth $2.7 trillion by 2040, as CNBC reported in October 2017. Much of the dividends will come from the lunar surface, including the far side of the moon and the lunar poles, where resources such as titanium, helium-3, and water — water is essential for spacecraft propulsion — may be found in substantial quantities. The Chang’e-4 probe is, in fact, closely connected to these ambitions and has as a primary mission goal the “topographic and geological survey of lunar samples,” to help pave the way for a permanent Chinese lunar research base.

If China is able to establish a permanent lunar presence, it will also render the manufacture of space-based solar-power (SBSP) stations vastly cheaper. They are already exponentially more cost-effective than Earth-based solar-power stations. A space-based “photovoltaic cell [would] generate 40 times more power annually than an Earth-based solar cell,” Goswami notes, and “SBSP satellites can intercept rays 35 to 70 percent more powerful than the midday sun on Earth.” Solar-power installations can be manufactured on a moon base, from silicon and aluminum obtained from, among other sources, asteroid and lunar mining. That would be far less expensive than lifting material and equipment into space from Earth-based launch sites and would reduce the manufacturing cost from $50,000 to $250 per kilogram.

If current projections hold, as Peter Garretson has explained, the world will need roughly 70 terawatts of energy by the year 2100. Through solar power, the geostationary belt surrounding Earth has the potential to provide 332 terawatts of energy, which would meet the globe’s power requirements several times over. The establishment of a full-fledged SBSP array could foster a revolution in power generation the likes of which the Earth has never seen. Beijing is fully aware of the potential payoff if China becomes the first nation to capitalize on this rapidly approaching wealth-creation opportunity. “Whoever obtains the technology first could occupy the future energy market,” Wang Xiji has observed. Wang is the principal designer of the Long March 1 (长征一号), the rocket that launched China’s first satellite, the Dong Fang Hong I (东方红一号), into orbit on April 24, 1970. “So it’s of great strategic significance,” Wang said. “Construction of a space solar-power station will be a milestone for human utilization of space resources. And it will promote technological progress in the fields of energy, electricity, materials, and aerospace.”

The Chinese government plans to construct a 100kW solar-power-station demonstration in low Earth orbit by 2025, with the long-term goal of constructing a fully operational, commercial space-based solar-power system by 2050. For 2017–21, the CNSA set the goal of beginning “a feasibility study and research on key technology for explorations of Jupiter and asteroids.” Moreover, in the 2016 white paper (see above), China’s government announced its intention to “continue its lunar exploration project,” “launch the first Mars probe by 2020 to carry out orbiting and roving exploration,” and “conduct further studies and key technological research on the bringing back of samples from Mars, asteroid exploration, exploration of the Jupiter system and planet fly-by exploration.” China’s permanent space station, slated for completion in 2020–22, will also be an indispensable part of these plans.

All that is in addition to, and in tandem with, China’s clear intention to “establish a lunar presence to carry out manufacturing in space.” The Chinese space program has already conducted experiments designed to explore the feasibility of human residency in space. “Our long-term goal is to explore, land, and settle” on the surface of the moon,” Wu Weiren, the chief architect of China’s moon missions, told the BBC in 2016.

The Chinese Communist Party sees space-exploration timelines as closely connected to its governmental legitimacy. Given the enthusiastic dedication of high-ranking Chinese officials to these plans, and given China’s success in keeping to its space-technology and space-mission timelines, the U.S. has reason, as Goswami has argued, to take Chinese ambitions seriously.

In the 2016 white paper, China linked its space exploration to long-term economic development, stating that “developing cislunar space” was one of the principal goals of its space program. That dovetails with what Goswami has described as China’s view of space as “an environment in which to live, work, and create wealth through habitation and resource extraction.” What exactly will be the character of that “habitation and resource extraction”?

Helium-3, given its massive potential implications for nuclear power, is sometimes considered the sine qua non of lunar resources. Indeed, Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), has said, not entirely without foundation, that deposits of helium-3 on the moon could “solve humanity’s energy demand for around 10,000 years at least.” In 2006 he told state media that “each year three space-shuttle missions [of helium-3] could bring enough fuel for all human beings across the world.” The U.S. should be just as mindful as China, not only of these but of other lunar-wealth creation opportunities, including those for solar power.

In an article in The Diplomat (February 2019), Goswami referenced Paul D. Spudis’s book The Value of the Moon. There Spudis writes that the “greatest value” of the moon “is its capacity to create new spacefaring capabilities through the exploitation of its material and resources.” For China, a key part of that process will likely be the establishment of a permanent moon complex. Its construction is slated to begin after the lunar pole-exploration missions slated for 2030. Those missions were outlined to Chinese media in September 2018 by Li Guoping, director of the CNSA’s department of system engineering.

China plans to have a full-fledged lunar presence, with the capacity for drastically cheapened space travel; the capacity to mine titanium, helium-3, silicon, and aluminum; large-scale production of a space-based solar-power array, and a space-based support network for missions to destinations including Mars, Jupiter, and assorted resource-rich asteroids. At that point it will be well on its way to achieving what Zhang Yulin has called “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

It could then be in a position to eclipse the United States as the world’s premier spacefaring nation. Does America — and, specifically, NASA — have the dedication and institutional wherewithal to meet the Chinese challenge? The intention of the Trump administration to establish the U.S. Space Force is an excellent step in the right direction, mirroring China’s establishment of its independent space- and cyber-warfare force (the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force) in 2016.

China has already achieved several of its key spacefaring goals, including the construction of the Tiangong-1 (天宫一号) and Tiangong-2 (天宫二号) space labs and of the Tianzhou (天舟一号) cargo ship, with on-orbit refueling capabilities that promise to “extend access and logistics lines.” That enables China to organize what Goswami has described as “an end-to-end supply chain for space presence and space resources,” an essential part of its near-term space-expansion plans. Moreover, the Dong Neng-3 “exoatmospheric vehicle,” tested in 2015, has the capability of ramming and neutralizing American satellites. So the Chinese space program is already well on its way to offering a serious threat to American interests in space. It appears that NASA and the forthcoming U.S. Space Force will in some cases have to react to challenges already facing them, instead of pre-empting such situations before they arise. We should not be complacent. In the wake of the Space Shuttle’s retirement, America has relied on the Russian space program for space access until this year. Only now have Boeing and SpaceX, with their newly designed capsules, given America domestic access to space.

On August 27, 1939, Germany’s Heinkel He 178 became the first aircraft to successfully fly on jet power. Italy’s Caproni Campini N.1 achieved its maiden flight exactly one year later, on August 27, 1940. The first flight of the Bell P-59 Aircomet, America’s first jet aircraft, was not until October 1, 1942.

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into Earth’s orbit in October 4, 1957. America’s first successful artificial satellite, Explorer 1, was launched a few months later, on January 31, 1958. The Soviet Union achieved the first manned spaceflight in human history with Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. Again, America lagged a little, launching its first manned spaceflight — the Freedom 7, piloted by Alan Shepard — three weeks later, on May 5 of that year.

Now, with Chang’e-4, the People’s Republic of China has become the first nation to land on the far side of the moon. It shows every intention of pressing its advantages.

America should perhaps not be totally averse to constructive interaction with China in space, but in any case the adage “Trust, but verify” should apply. Consider China’s recent actions regarding, for example, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. We have reason to expect that Beijing will carry the same pattern of behavior into space, as Goswami has argued.

While the American space and aeronautical programs have shown an admirable ability to compete and “catch up” with competitors, America should aim to seize opportunities to achieve historically significant “firsts.” Recall that the advanced jet technology of the German air force in the Second World War posed a significant challenge for American pilots. This is not to say that we are at immediate risk of a full-scale confrontation, but we should be wary of falling behind in the realm of lunar exploration and space-based wealth creation. NASA should consider the possibility of increased cooperation with the private space-exploration industry, on economic grounds, as the Chinese space program is now doing, if for no other reason than to prepare for the time when such concerns will have become unavoidable.

The issue might seem remote, amid the constant political conniptions that increasingly characterize the American news cycle, but an economic and military frontier on the moon and cislunar space is rapidly coming to the fore. Chang’e-4 is only the beginning of China’s ambitious plans for the moon and, ultimately, Mars and beyond.

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