China Launches a Moon Mission as the US and China Ratchet up their Space Rivalry

A Long March-5 rocket, carrying the Chang'e-6 lunar probe, lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on May 3, 2024

China’s ambitious space programme could take a significant stride ahead with the launch of an unmanned lunar mission on Friday that intends to return samples from the moon’s far side for the first time.

Space enthusiasts flocked to witness the momentous event at the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in south China’s Hainan island when the Chang’e-6 probe, China’s most sophisticated robotic lunar mission to date, took off on a Long March-5 rocket.

With intentions to establish a research outpost on the moon’s south pole and put humans there by 2030, China is attempting to establish itself as a major space power, and this mission, which begins with its launch, is a major step towards that goal.

In a market that is becoming more and more competitive, it comes as a growing number of nations, including the United States, consider the strategic and scientific benefits of increased lunar exploration.

The Chang’e-6 lander from China is scheduled to touchdown for 53 days in a huge crater on the far side of the moon that is never facing Earth. With the Chang’e-4 mission in 2019, China made history by becoming the first and only nation to set foot on the moon’s far side.

Any far-side samples that the Chang’e-6 lander manages to gather might be crucial information for China’s lunar aspirations as well as a means for scientists to delve deeper into the history of the moon and the solar system.

Ge Ping, deputy director of the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) Centre of Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering, stated last week from the launch site that the Chang’e-6 “aims to achieve breakthroughs in the design and control technology of the moon’s retrograde orbit, intelligent sampling, take-off and ascent technologies, and automatic sample-return on the far side of the moon.”

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ambitious undertaking

A major test of China’s space capabilities in the pursuit of President Xi Jinping’s “eternal dream” of transforming the nation into a space power will be the Chang’e-6 probe.

China has recently made significant strides in space exploration, an area that has historically been dominated by the US and Russia.

Launched in 2007 and named after a Chinese mythological moon goddess, China achieved the first robotic lunar landing in nearly forty years in 2013 with the Chang’e programme. China constructed the Tiangong, its own orbital space station, in 2022.

Both the Chang’e-4’s 2019 record-breaking far-side landing and the Chang’e-5’s 2020 successful return to Earth with near-side moon samples are built upon by the technically challenging Chang’e-6 mission.

This time, Chang’e-6 must rely on the Queqiao-2 satellite, which was placed into lunar orbit in March, in order to communicate with Earth from the far side of the moon.

An orbiter, a lander, an ascender, and a reentry module make up the probe itself.

After landing in the vast, about 2,500-kilometer-diameter South Pole-Aitken basin, a crater formed some 4 billion years ago, the Chang’e-6 lander is supposed to collect lunar dust and rocks.

The samples would then be transferred to the lunar orbiter by an ascender spacecraft in order to be used in the reentry module during the mission’s return to Earth.

James Head, an emeritus professor at Brown University who has worked with Chinese scientists heading the trip, claims that the intricate mission “goes through virtually every step” that will be necessary for Chinese astronauts to land on the moon in the years to come.

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The mission provides “robotic practice for these steps” to send astronauts to the moon and back, he added, in addition to returning samples that may provide “fundamental new insights into the origin and early history of the moon and solar system.”

As Beijing gets closer to its goal of landing humans on the moon in 2030, China intends to launch two more Chang-e series missions. The following decade, it will establish a research station on the lunar south pole, an area that is thought to have water ice.

Chang’e-7, which is slated for 2026, will seek for resources near the moon’s south pole, and Chang’e-8, which is expected to arrive around two years later, may investigate ways to use materials from the moon to get ready to build the research facility, according to Chinese authorities.

Competitive space

Friday’s launch comes as numerous nations ramp up their lunar programmes, with an increasing emphasis on the potential for resource access and deeper space exploration that successful moon trips could provide.

Last year, India landed its first spacecraft on the moon, while Russia’s first lunar mission in decades failed when its Luna 25 probe collided with the lunar surface.

Japan became the fifth country to land a spacecraft on the moon in January, but its Moon Sniper lander ran out of power due to an erroneous landing angle. The next month, IM-1, a NASA-funded mission designed by Texas-based private business Intuitive Machines, landed near the South Pole.

That landing, the first by a US-built spacecraft in over five decades, is one of many planned commercial missions to investigate the lunar surface before NASA attempts to return men there as early as 2026 and create a scientific base camp.

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Last month, NASA administrator Bill Nelson appeared to recognise that China’s pace – and suspicions about its intentions – were driving the American drive to return to the moon, decades after the Apollo-crewed flights.

“We suspect that much of their so-called civilian space programme is actually a military programme. I believe we are in a race,” Nelson told Congress last month, adding that he is concerned that China may try to prevent the US or other countries from entering particular lunar areas if they reach first.

China has long stated that it supports the peaceful use of space, and, like the United States, has sought to utilise its space expertise to foster international cooperation.

This time, China claims that the Chang’e-6 mission has research instruments or payloads from France, Italy, Pakistan, and the European Space Agency.

“China hopes to strengthen cooperation with its international counterparts and deepen international cooperation in the space field,” CNSA spokesperson Ge told reporters the day before the launch.

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