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China's next moonshot could decide who owns the future

China's next moonshot could decide who owns the future
© Getty Images

2019 began with the landing of the Chinese Chang’e-4 on the lunar far side, carrying with it the Yutu-2 rover. The year has just ended with the return of the Long March 5 to launch service. Both events suggest that China is poised to do great things in space exploration in the coming year.

Chang’e-4 is China’s second moon landing. Chang’e-3 landed in the Mare Imbrium in December 2013 and deployed the first Yutu rover. Both the lander and the rover were designed to operate during the lunar day, which lasts almost two weeks, powered by solar panels. They would go into sleep mode during the lunar night.

The Yutu developed mechanical difficulties toward the end of the second lunar day of operations in January 2014 and subsequently stopped moving. The rover continued to send useful data until the end of July 2016.

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 have been far more successful. They landed in the Von Karman crater on the lunar far side, in the Aitken Basin on the lunar south pole. Since then, the mission has been returning important scientific data from this hitherto unexplored region of the moon, operating during the lunar day, hibernating during the lunar night. The mission has been proceeding for nearly a year.

The Long March 5 took off on December 27, 2019, the first flight since a failure grounded the rocket in July 2017. The Long March 5 is capable of taking 8.2 metric tons into a trans-lunar injection. The rocket’s return to flight is critical for China’s space exploration plans in 2020 and beyond.

The Long March 5 is due to launch the Chang’e-5 lunar lander in 2020. The Chang’e-5 will land on the lunar surface and retrieve about two kilograms of rock and soil samples. A lunar ascent stage will launch the sample into lunar orbit, where it will dock with an orbiter. The orbiter will transfer the sample to an Earth return vehicle. The Earth return vehicle will blast out of lunar orbit and take the sample back to Earth. Chang’e-5 will be the most complex spaceflight that China has ever attempted.

The Long March 5 will also launch China’s first mission to Mars during the next window, which will take place in August 2020. The mission will consist of an orbiter as well as a lander/rover combination.

A variant called the Long March 5B will launch pieces of China’s multi module space station, probably starting in 2021 or 2022.

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When 2019 started, India and a private group in Israel had also planned lunar landing missions. Both the Israeli Beresheet and the Indian Chandrayaan-2 crash landed. The Chandrayaan-2 mission also included an orbiter, which successfully entered lunar orbit and is returning images and data. Both the Israeli group, SpaceIL, and India have vowed to make second lunar landing attempts. The Indian Chandrayaan-3 will try to land on the moon in the fall of 2020.

In the meantime, the first commercial American lunar landers, sponsored and paid for by NASA under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, are due to start arriving on the moon’s surface in 2021. Congress has allocated some money that NASA will use to develop crewed lunar landers for missions it hopes to start in 2024.

If one wants to start an argument in space policy circles, the question of whether China or the United States is ahead in the new space race will serve very well. From one perspective, NASA is far and away ahead of anyone. NASA is the senior partner on the International Space Station. The space agency is poised to certify commercial crew services to be offered by SpaceX and Boeing, restoring America’s capacity to fly astronauts to and from space. NASA is the only organization on the planet that has sent probes throughout the solar system, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond.

In regard to the narrower race for which side will be first to return to the moon and establish a base or settlement, China is clearly ahead. Since the moon is the gateway to the rest of the solar system, who will be the first to do those things is a very serious question. The answer could determine who owns the future, China, ruled by a tyrannical government, or the United States, with its traditions of freedom and tolerance.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled, “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.