Japan is aiming to become the fifth country to successfully land a probe on the Moon. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the Japanese Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) in September 2023, and it is expected to touch down on the Moon’s surface on January 20, 2024. This mission is seen as a technology demonstrator for JAXA, as it aims to practice near-real-time visual precision landing. The agency hopes to develop landing technology that will allow them to touch down anywhere on the Moon, rather than only in favorable terrain. JAXA is also planning a follow-up mission called the Lunar Polar Exploration probe (LUPEX), which will be developed in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
The Moon has become a popular target for exploration missions in recent years. Russia attempted to land its Luna 25 probe last year, and ISRO successfully launched Chandrayaan-3. The United States is working on its Artemis program to return humans to the Moon and establish a commercial presence there. China is also making progress with its Chang’e project and aims to establish its own International Lunar Research Station.
While spacefaring nations claim their intentions in space are peaceful, there are concerns about the geopolitical implications of this new space race. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which governs strategic conduct in space, has been ratified by many countries, including major spacefaring nations. However, some argue that the treaty has become outdated due to technological advancements and the involvement of private space companies. The US has developed a new international agreement called the Artemis Accords, which focuses on common principles for safe exploration of the Moon and beyond. So far, 33 countries have signed the agreement, but Russia and China have not. There is currently no clear way forward to bring all parties to the same table.
As exploration, human occupation, and commercial exploitation of the Moon increase, there is a higher likelihood of encounters and conflicts between competing parties or nations. The proliferation of military hardware in low Earth orbit raises concerns about the potential consequences of such conflicts. Diplomatic efforts to prevent escalation have been lackluster, and the space environment is becoming increasingly volatile. However, there have been successful multilateral collaborations, such as the International Space Station, which provide hope for resolving conflicts in space.