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Chandrayaan 2: Vikram Lander’s soft-landing glitch won’t affect Japan-India space cooperation

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By Kazuto Suzuki

Chandrayaan 2 Vikram lander: It was painful to watch ISRO scientists and engineers disappointed to learn that transmission from Chandrayaan-2 was lost. Prime Minister Modi comforting Dr. K Sivan, the chairman of ISRO, was a moving scene. This was one of the darkest moments of Indian space history, but it was wonderful to see that everyone heads up high.

Chandrayaan-2 was an ambitious plan. It aimed not only soft-landing on the moon but also carrying rover inside the lander. It would make much harder to achieve both successful especially for the country which has little experience of landing on other planets. Traditionally, the steps need to be taken for soft-landing first and then send the rover, but it seems that India went on an attempt to skip couples of steps for catching up other countries which had already succeeded to run rover on the moon.

Watch Video | Chandrayaan 2 Vikram landing glitch: PM Modi hugs & consoles ISRO chief in heart-warming gesture

Obviously, the primary competitor for India is China. Not only China was the third country to successfully land probe on the moon, but also it was able to do so on the “other side” of the moon for the first time in the history of humankind. In space, “the first in history” is extremely important. For example, everyone remembers the name of the Captain of Apollo 11, the first man on the moon, but not the fifth or tenth. Everyone will remember that it was China which landed the “other side” of the moon first but will not for the second or third. So, the mission of Chandrayaan-2 was to be the first one to confirm that there will be water or ice in the polar region of the moon. If it was successful, everyone will remember that it was India which find it first.

Nevertheless, being first is not the only reason why India wanted to land in the polar region. It was also because water can be a very useful resource for the activities in space. It can, of course, be used for sustaining lives of astronauts without sending water from the Earth. It can also be electrolyzed to hydrogen and oxygen – both can be used for the fuel for rockets to be launched from the moon. Securing access to the resources on the moon will give a huge advantage for India and its friends to establish a permanent base for further exploration of the moon and beyond. In other words, if India becomes the first one to find the water on the moon, it will give fewer chances for others, including China, to gain access to the resources.

READ | Chandrayaan 2: Vikram lander is in single piece but tilted position after hard landing, says ISRO official

It should, however, be reminded that national appropriation of the landing on the moon and other celestial bodies are prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty. Thus, even if India became the first one to find the water on the moon, it cannot have sovereign control of the territory. However, the Outer Space Treaty does not prohibit the use of resources on the moon and other celestial bodies or the commercial exploitation of them. There are two states, the United States and Luxembourg, recognize by law the rights of exploitation of planetary resources by commercial entities. If India wants to secure access to the water on the moon, it should have certain legal framework to make sure that private or non-state entities can exploit it.

Such legislation will give more options for the cooperation between Japan and India for the exploration of the polar region of the moon. Japan will launch SLIM (Small Lander for Investigating Moon) probe in 2021, which will test the high precision landing technologies and light exploration vehicle. This demonstrator will provide crucial technology for the joint mission for the lander and rover between Japan and India, which will be launched in the early 2020s (probably in 2023). If Chandrayaan-2 was successful, it would have been ideal to bring technological capabilities of both countries for landing and exploiting the moon. Even unsuccessful landing of Chandrayaan-2 would give important knowledge and experience for the development of this joint project because we can learn what went wrong and how to improve it. Thus, it is unthinkable that the failure of Chandrayaan-2 would stop collaboration between Japan and India.

Furthermore, Japan-India cooperation project will be extremely important for establishing the governance system of the lunar resources. If it is a unilateral project that finds and exploits the resources, it can be regarded as India’s national ambition to establish de facto sovereign control over the land and resources. However, if it is done as an international cooperation project, it can be understood that India and Japan have no such ambition for national appropriation. Then, the management of this international project will provide important precedents for the future of lunar resource governance.

The failure of Chandrayaan-2 will give important lessons. Both Japan and India can learn from it and will take advantage of it for the future joint program.

(Author is Professor of International Political Economy, Graduate School of Public Policy, Hokkaido University. Views expressed are personal.)