Credit: ISS/NASA

The Moon’s south pole is increasingly seen as the “go to” locale by multiple nations.

This week, experts virtually attending the 52nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) 2021 are providing new detailed looks of that southern polar region, a setting with concentrations of hydrogen in the lunar topside and the likely presence of ground ice lurking within Sun-shy craters. Toss in for good measure areas that receive copious solar energy and are visible from Earth.

Using local resources on the Moon can help make future crewed missions more sustainable and affordable.
Credit: RegoLight, visualization: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

This convergence of favorable factors bodes well for extending and sustaining a human presence on the Moon.

But as more data about the lunar south pole is collected — tightly focused on the “best of” Moon spots — will there be a concentration and crowding for prime real estate?

Credit: via Roscosmos

China’s agenda

The Moon’s south pole is increasingly becoming a place of high interest for both robotic and human missions.

Last week, for instance, China rolled out a Moon exploration program that includes the retrieval of lunar samples from the south pole by a future Chang’e-6, a detailed survey of the Moon’s south pole resources by Chang’e-7, and the testing of key technologies in preparation for the construction of a lunar research station by Chang’e-8. Indeed, a recent memorandum of understanding signed between China and Russia is designed to formulate a roadmap for the construction of an international lunar research station.

Credit: Roscosmos

Unique landing spot

Additionally, the European Space Agency and Russia are working together on a Russian-led Luna-27 mission targeting the south polar region of the Moon.

In development by ESA to be toted by Luna-27 is the Package for Resource Observation and in-Situ Prospecting for Exploration, Commercial exploitation and Transportation – mercifully shortened to PROSPECT.

Meanwhile, NASA is pressing forward on its Artemis initiative to return humans to the Moon.

NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover.
Credit: NASA

Future robotic and crewed landings on the Moon – like NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER in 2023, followed by Artemis III astronauts – could be headed for the Shackleton-de Gerlache ridge at the lunar South Pole.

Credit: JAXA/NHK/Paul Spudis

According to an LPSC paper by Hannes Bernhardt and Mark Robinson of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, the Shackleton-de Gerlache ridge has been identified as a potential landing site due to the unique proximity of permanently shadowed regions and peaks of extended (greater than 70 percent between 2024 and 2026) Sun and Earth visibilities.

Crowding and interference?

Does all this multi-nation Moon machinery plopping down at the Moon’s south pole mean concentration and crowding for lunar sites?

Signing of the Outer Space Treaty. Soviet Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin,
UK Ambassador Sir Patrick Dean, US Ambassador Arthur J. Goldberg, US President
Lyndon B. Johnson and others observe as US Secretary of State Dean Rusk signs the
Outer Space Treaty on January 27, 1967 in Washington, DC
Source: UNOOSA.

“The large number of lunar missions planned for the next decade are likely to target a relatively limited number of small sites with concentrated resources on the Moon’s surface, creating risks of crowding and interference at these locations,” explains Martin Elvis, a Harvard University astrophysicist, and lead author of an LPSC paper.

“Real situations, where significant resources are at stake, will require adjudication to resolve disputes,” Elvis and colleagues write. “Unlike the Antarctic Treaty on which it was based, the Outer Space Treaty has no mechanism for adjudicating disputes.”

In the LPSC paper, Elvis and his co-authors urge that now is an appropriate time to begin developing a “governance framework” guided by lessons drawn from Earth. “Efforts at managing forthcoming disputes are most likely to succeed if they are undertaken before vested interests gain too firm a foothold,” they conclude.


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