HELSINKI — India’s second lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, is scheduled to enter lunar orbit Aug. 20 following a relatively circuitous journey to the moon. Back on Earth, India’s future space ambitions are also developing.

The Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft entered lunar transfer trajectory Aug. 13 following five orbit maneuvers to raise its initial elliptical geocentric orbit after launch July 22.

Chandrayaan-2’s trek will continue in a step-by-step fashion, with four further planned orbit maneuvers to reduce an initial 118- by 18,078-kilometer orbit into a 100- by 100-kilometer lunar polar orbit by Sept. 1. There, the orbiter will spend at least a year mapping and analyzing the surface with a suite of imagers and instruments. 

The mission’s 1,471-kilogram Vikram lander, accompanied by the 27-kilogram Pragyan rover, will subsequently separate the next day in preparation for a landing which, if successful, would make India the fourth country to soft-land on the moon, following the U.S. China, and the former Soviet Union, and also the closest touchdown to the south pole so far.

Back on the ground, India has meanwhile been maneuvering to secure future lunar collaboration — with an eye on geopolitics.

Asian space rivalry

The ambitious Chandrayaan-2 mission has not gone unnoticed, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying congratulating India following launch. Hua added that the country was “willing to join forces with India and other countries to advance the lunar exploration.”

Ajey Lele, a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, India, wrote in a SpaceNews op-ed August 6 that space “could emerge as one arena where both states could make a fresh beginning,” in spite of mutual mistrust and long-term border disputes.

China’s apparent overtures however go against the current dynamics of cooperation developing in the region. Indian and Japanese Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe stressed the importance of enhancing comprehensive space cooperation in a joint statement in September 2017 while underlining the importance of leading the Indo-Pacific region.

Further, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have initiated talks on Chandrayaan-3, with the commitment reiterated following the launch of Chandrayaan-2. One widely-reported concept for the third mission would prioritize water prospecting in the south polar region, with Japan providing the launch vehicle and rover and India developing the lander. 

Namrata Goswami, an independent analyst on space policy, told SpaceNews that the development of India-Japan cooperation “implies that India and Japan realize that China has serious potential to take over the space sector in the Asia-Pacific. That would mean a China led space order where it will set the norms and standard principles of behavior and laws as has been the case with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).” 

Global Times, an often nationalistic and outspoken Beijing newspaper, took a somewhat conflicted view of India’s recent space activities, hinting at the challenges to cooperation. After hailing the launch of Chandrayaan-2, the op-ed references the India’s March kinetic kill anti-satellite test and warned New Delhi that its space development should not “target any third country, or it will face serious consequences,” and an ensuing arms race.

Chinese plans and partnerships

For its part China is already working on securing support and partners for its own lunar ambitions. At the opening of a lunar and deep space exploration conference July 22 in Zhuhai, southern China, state news agency Xinhua reported that “China, Russia and Europe” had agreed to jointly establish a scientific research station on the moon. 

An official with the European Space Agency told SpaceNews that while discussions regarding future lunar exploration has begun among experts, no decisions have been finalized and nothing has yet been endorsed by ESA and its member states.

Additionally, China’s own plans for an expansion of its lunar exploration program beyond the sample return phase (Chang’e-5 and -6) have not received official government approval. The stated plan consists of three-to-four missions to the lunar south pole across the 2020s to establish a robotic “research base” and carry out lunar resource in-situ utilization tests, “bio-scientific experiments,” and test rare-gas extraction from the lunar regolith and 3D-printing.

The Chang’e-5 lunar sample return was initially scheduled for launch late 2017, but the failure of the second Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket in July that year postponed the mission. A return-to-flight for the Long March 5 was planned for July 2019, China’s main space contractor stated in January, with Chang’e-5 to follow in late 2019. As of June, however, preparations for the return-to-flight had not begun, signaling further delays which will impact Chinese lunar, deep space and space station plans.

China, which in June accepted up to nine experiments through a joint international cooperation initiative to fly onboard its future modular space station, has opened its Chang’e-6 lunar sample return and complex combined asteroid and comet mission to outside participation. Applications are being accepted until the end of August, with both missions expected to launch in the early-mid 2020s.

Despite India, Japan and China all looking to activities at the lunar south pole, constellations of collaboration appear to crystallizing along the lines of regional rivalries, and piecemeal cooperation on the level of contributing payloads may be the limit of India-China engagement.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for GBTIMES and SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.