A decades-old U.S. trade rule has thwarted China’s plans to reach the very desirable lunar south pole, where NASA plans to land Artemis 3 in 2025. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, has apparently barred the UAE’s Rashid 2 rover from joining the Chang’e 7 mission in 2026.

The South China Morning Post reported last week on the reorganization, citing two unidentified people with knowledge of China’s mission.

Rashid 2 would have joined Chang’e 7’s unmanned south pole expedition.

Rashid 2 would have accompanied the unmanned Chang’e 7 mission to the south pole, whose objective was to prepare the site for China’s proposed International Lunar Research Station. In September, the two nations signed a memorandum of understanding, but the ITAR, which oversees the production, sale, and export of military items for launch vehicles and submersibles, is keeping the partnership frozen.

As far as I can understand, U.S. officials are concerned that when Rashid 2 gets in Xichang for its launch on China’s rocket, Chinese engineers would slip in one night, disassemble it, study its blueprints, and reassemble it before dawn.

According to SpaceNews, ITAR applies to both domestic enterprises and foreign entities that have access to U.S.-designed goods under ITAR. In this instance, it is unclear which provisions of the law apply to the rover or expedition. There are precedents for components being built outside the scope of ITAR, such as when Europe and China collaborated on satellites developed outside the law’s jurisdiction.

McDowell told the Post, “Now that China is a major space power, I believe the long-term result, assuming the U.S. does not change its attitude, will be more ITAR-free products developed in places like Europe and the United Arab Emirates, and ultimately less reliance on purchasing U.S. space products by the rest of the world.”

ITAR is a holdover from the early days of the space race, when it was just getting started.

ITAR is a result of a time when the space race was in its infancy, when the United States feared the Soviet Union might obtain a competitive advantage in space. Trade regulations will always exist, but it is fair to conclude that ITAR is now outmoded and may benefit from a long-overdue update. And to add to McDowell’s argument, the U.S. industrial sector and its overseas partners might suffer if the legislation remains unchanged. Simply ask the UAE.

The first Rashid rover was launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in December 2022 as part of Japan’s first private mission to the Moon (scheduled to arrive in April). The Rashid rover has ESA-developed technology and was built at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, whereas the Hakuto-R lunar lander belongs to the Japanese firm ispace.

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