Illustration photo shows Chinese flag planted on the moon.
Successful Chang’e 4 mission reveals nation’s ambitious attempts to thwart its rivals.
As Apollo 11 sailed above the moon, mission control in Houston suggested the astronauts should keep an eye out for a “beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o”, who, according to legend, had ascended to the moon thousands of years previously, taking along a large rabbit as a companion.
“I’ll look out for the bunny girl then,” Buzz Aldrin joked in reply, shortly ahead of his and Neil Armstrong’s historic touchdown at the lunar surface.
Nearly 50 years on, an astronaut gazing down from orbit might glimpse a hi-tech homage to the ancient folk tale. China’s Chang’e 4 probe this month became the first to land on the lunar far side, and nearby, hibernating during the lunar night, the Jade Rabbit rover is exploring this uncharted territory.
The mission showcases China’s ambition to become one of the world’s major powers in space exploration. The country has made the moon exciting again by beaming back the first close-up images of its mysterious far side.
Beijing does not disclose how much is spent on its space programme, but aims to build a space station and a base on the moon, as well as send a probe to Mars by 2020 and carry out a mission to Jupiter by 2029.
Possibly spurred on by China’s plans, other space agencies are showing a renewed interest in the moon, and landers from the US, India, Japan and Russia are planned over the next decade.
So what is driving the renaissance of lunar exploration?
James Carpenter, a project scientist on the European Space Agency’s lunar exploration team, believes that the latest interest goes beyond purely scientific goals.
“There is a long-term motivation which is about sustained human presence in space,” he said. “If we ever want to live and work in a permanent, economically sustainable way off Earth, this requires that we learn to use the resources we find there.”
The motivations for heading into space for longer periods include extracting valuable resources from the moon or asteroids, as well as a preparing for a “lifeboat scenario” where the world becomes uninhabitable.
At a press conference, officials said there would be three more missions after Chang’e 5, a mission to return samples from the moon. By Chang’e 8, China hopes to lay the foundation for a research base, including possibly building houses on lunar soil using 3D printing.
Wu Weiren, the chief designer of the Chang’e mission, told China’s state broadcaster CCTV: “It is human nature to explore the unknown world. China is on the road to becoming a strong space nation.”
November 2018 photo shows full-size mockup of Core module of China's space station on display during the Airshow China. Photo: Shutterstock
Preparing for living in space is a large element of the Chinese programme. Chang’e 4’s payload included experiments to investigate the presence of water in the lunar soil, as well as a miniature greenhouse to test the ability of plants and insects to survive in weak gravity.
Back on Earth, students at Beihang University in Beijing ran a year-long experiment, Lunar Palace 1, in which students were housed in lunar-like conditions. Inside a module they grew potatoes, wheat and vegetables, and relied on oxygen and water that were recycled within the “bioregenerative life support system”.
China is not alone in its ambitions on the moon. A Russian lander, scheduled for 2022, will attempt to drill into the south pole region and look at the potential for resource extraction, while ESA is planning experiments to harvest water and oxygen.
Nasa is planning its first crewed mission around the moon in half a century for 2023. The prospect of China, the US and Europe competing to establish outposts and exploit the moon’s resources has led to talk of a new space race, with some suggesting that China is now ahead.
However, John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said that many have overstated China’s recent accomplishments.
He describes them as relatively modest when compared to Nasa’s New Horizons mission, the first to perform a fly-by of a Kuiper Belt object, or Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission, set to land on an asteroid next month and return samples to Earth. “China’s achievement is impressive, but it is not something fundamental or different from what other countries are doing,” he said.
For Logsdon, the key question in how the next phase of space exploration plays out is whether China becomes a collaborator with other countries or continues to compete. “It’s really a broader question of Chinese-US relationships overall,” he said.
“Will the two countries become peer competitors in military, economic and technical terms, or will they find ways of working together? What happens in space just dramatises that.” Experts say other countries are likely to remain cautious about collaborating with China, despite some positive steps such as the inclusion of instruments aboard Chang’e 4 developed by teams in Sweden and Germany.
“China’s reputation for stealing technology hurts chances for cooperation,” said James Lewis, senior vice-president and director of the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “China sees itself as competing – when they drone on about the need for win-win, it’s a sign that they think we are in a zero-sum game, where there can be only one winner.”
Because the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), oversees the majority of what China does in space, there are also concerns about China’s goal to deploy space systems to more effectively gather information than their adversaries – or block their adversaries’ ability to do the same.
Whichever way diplomatic relations in space play out, Carpenter said that nations and commercial players should be working to establish ground rules for the exploration of the moon and beyond. He added: “Something we’ve learned from working on Earth is that we have to learn how to manage resources in a sustainable and ethical way. This is something that is certainly going to be part of the discussion – how we do this in a way that is responsible in the future, and how we create the rules and governance and legal framework to ensure we do that.”