NASA’s head warned that China may try to claim the Moon – two space scholars explain why that’s unlikely to happen

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently expressed concerns over China’s aims in space, and in particular, that China would, in some way, claim ownership over the Moon and stop other countries from exploring it. In an interview with a German newspaper, Nelson cautioned, “We must be very concerned that China is landing on the Moon and saying: ‘It’s ours now and you stay out.‘” China immediately denounced the claims as a “lie”.

This spat between the administrator of NASA and Chinese government officials comes at a time when both nations are actively working on missions to the Moon – and China has not been shy about its lunar aspirations.

In 2019, China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon. That same year, China and Russia announced joint plans to reach the South Pole of the Moon by 2026. And some Chinese officials and government documents have expressed intentions to build a permanent, crewed International Lunar Research Station by 2027.

There is big difference between China – or any state for that matter – setting up a lunar base and actually “taking over” the Moon. As two scholars who study space security and China’s space program, we believe that neither China nor any other nation is likely to take over the Moon in the near future. It is not only illegal, it is also technologically daunting – the costs of such an endeavor would be extremely high, while the potential payoffs would be uncertain.

A large room with many seats and a large dais.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed into law by the United Nations, seen here, says that the Moon cannot be claimed by any nation.
Patrick Gruban/Flickr, CC BY-SA

China is limited by international space law

Legally, China cannot take over the Moon because it is against current international space law. The Outer Space Treaty, adopted in 1967 and signed by 134 countries, including China, explicitly states that “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means” (Article II). Legal scholars have debated the exact meaning of “appropriation”, but under a literal interpretation, the treaty indicates that no country can take possession of the Moon and declare it an extension of its national aspirations and prerogatives. If China tried to do this, it would risk international condemnation and a potential international retaliatory response.

While no country can claim ownership of the Moon, Article I of the Outer Space Treaty allows any state to explore and use outer space and celestial bodies. China will not be the only visitor to the South Pole of the Moon in the near future. The U.S.-led Artemis Accords is a group of 20 countries that has plans to return humans to the Moon by 2025, which will include the establishment of a research station on the lunar surface and a supporting space station in orbit called…

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