As space race heats up, US & China eye orbital ‘parking spots’

NEW DELHI: The world’s first private mission to land on the moon took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 8.
This marked the United States’ first lunar landing attempt since 1972. However, the excitement surrounding the Peregrine Mission One was short-lived as the craft encountered technical difficulties.
The solar panels failed to orient themselves, and a fuel leak occurred, delaying efforts to send humans into space for at least a year.
In contrast, China has had a successful track record in space exploration, with multiple missions to the lunar orbit and surface, including the far side.
China also has a permanently crewed Tiangong space station in low-Earth orbit, positioning itself as the only operational space station after the retirement of the International Space Station in 2030.
The competition between China and the United States extends beyond Earth, as both countries vie for strategic positions in space.
Bill Nelson, Nasa‘s top official and a former astronaut and US senator, warned of China’s intentions to gain a foothold on the moon.
He urged vigilance, citing China’s actions in the contested Spratly Islands as a cautionary example.
According to a report in the South China Morning Post, US is now focusing on countering China’s “astropolitical” ambitions, with lawmakers recommending funding for programs that would allow the US to permanently station assets at Lagrange points.
Lagrange points, named after Italian astronomer Joseph-Louis Lagrange, are stable regions in space where the gravitational pull of two celestial bodies cancel each other out.
Nasa has described these points as “parking spots” in the region of space between Sun, Earth and Moon.
These points are ideal for placing satellites and telescopes as they require minimal fuel to maintain a stationary position.
The cislunar space, specifically Lagrange points L1 and L2 in the Earth-moon system, carries strategic value due to its proximity to the moon, the SCMP report said.
China has already positioned its Queqiao relay satellite at the L2 point to communicate with the Chang’e 4 lunar probe, which landed on the moon’s far side.
China’s plans include building a lunar base within the next five years and sending humans to the moon by 2030.
The US is not sitting idle and is actively working on the Gateway program as part of the Artemis missions, aiming to return to the moon.
Commercial and international partners, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are involved in this initiative, the report said.
The Gateway program involves building a small space station that will orbit the moon and provide support for lunar surface missions. Monitoring and navigating the cislunar region are crucial for scientific and economic opportunities.
Both Russia and China have been evolving their military doctrines to extend into space, leading to concerns about turning space into a “warfighting domain.”
GPS systems, crucial for positioning and navigation, are potential targets. The US government-owned GPS constellation is used worldwide, making it a significant concern for national security.
Amid these developments, US has called for a rules-based international order in space, similar to on Earth.
The Artemis Accords, introduced in 2020, aim to facilitate peaceful international space cooperation.
While China is not a member, it has invited international partners to collaborate on its lunar missions.
Global cooperation is essential for the entire region above Earth, referred to as “prime real estate” in space.
Crowding, collisions and debris pose threats that could hinder satellite operations.
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