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The Moon’s far side and China’s space strategy

The Chang’e-4 lunar lander is similar to the Chang’e-3 lander from five years ago, but will attempt to land on the far side of the Moon, a first by any country. (credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences)

In the early days of 2019, China may become the first nation on Earth to land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon. On December 8, China launched its Chang’e-4 lunar spacecraft on a Long March 3B rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. As soon as New Year’s Eve, China will attempt to land this robotic probe somewhere within the Von Kármán crater, 186 kilometers in diameter, in the South Pole-Aitken Basin.

Jun Huang of the School of Earth Sciences at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, explains the focus on this particular landing as the lead author of a paper for the Journal of Geophysical Research. While Western media coverage and discussions tend to ignore or deliberately downplay China’s space achievements, including Chang’e-4, China has yet again proven that it is dead serious about its deadlines set for its ambitions in space. Its desire to land on the far side of the Moon was articulated by China’s space agencies several years ago with a planned launch in 2018. And here we are, with another Chinese space mission goal on track to be achieved around that deadline. This accomplishment of stated deadlines has been the trajectory of China’s uncrewed (1999) and crewed space missions (2003), the Tiangong 1 (2011) and Tiangong 2 (2016) modules, as well as the indigenously built cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou 1 (2016), that docked with the Tiangong 2.

Landing on the far side of the Moon has its own technological challenges, such as how to maintain direct radio contact with Earth. To solve that problem, China launched the Queqiao relay satellite in May 2018 and placed it in a halo orbit around the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point. That would then transit telemetry back to Earth via its S-band antenna. The use of Chinese mythology—Chang’e (moon goddess) and Queqiao (magpie bridge)—evokes deep-seated societal connections to such missions.

Significantly, China’s ambitions for the Moon and outer space include proposals for a Chinese research base on the Moon, in support of which they are developing bioregenerative support systems to ensure that humans can settle and survive in lunar conditions. In 2017, Beihang University in Beijing created a lunar lab, Lunar Palace 1 or Yuegong-1, simulating a lunar base here on Earth. Eight students lived in lunar-like conditions for a cumulative 365 days. The chief designer of Yuegong-1, Liu Hong, said that this “test marked the longest stay in a bioregenerative life support system (BLSS), in which humans, animals, plants and microorganisms co-exist in a closed environment, simulating a lunar base. Oxygen, water and food are recycled within the BLSS, creating an Earth-like environment.” The students grew potatoes, wheat, carrots, string beans and onions.

According to Wang Ju of the China Academy of Engineering, this test had critical implications for human ambitions for long-term stays beyond Earth, particularly for a lunar base. Similar but smaller bioregenerative support systems will fly on China’s future Moon and Mars probes to test the robustness of these experiments in the actual conditions of space.

Significantly, in 2016, China successfully demonstrated to the world that reproduction could be possible in outer-space when its SJ-10 recoverable satellite sent 6,000 mouse embryos to space, in which some of the embryos developed into advanced blastocysts in four days. Stanford University Prof. Aaron Hsueh, who specializes in reproductive biology, stated, “This represents an important milestone in human space exploration… One small step for mouse embryos, one giant leap for human reproduction.”

China’s achievements in space follows an incremental strategy of developing its space capacity, from being able to send humans into outer space, followed by robotic missions that enable both space science and build its capacity for long-term presence. In the future are plans for launching its permanent space station, to be followed by deep space exploration and exploitation. Towards this effort, the Communist Party of China has committed China’s resources and leadership focus on building both capacity (civil and military) and legitimacy for its outer space missions. For China, space, like its engagements in the Antarctic continent, offers both the possibility for science as well as access to future resources.

The roadmaps released by state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and the China National Space Administration (CNSA), tasked with setting policy for space, indicates that between 2020 and 2045, China aims to achieve several significant milestones regarding space technology. This includes a Mars probe in 2020, an asteroid mission by 2022, a Jupiter mission by 2029, a reusable launch vehicle by 2035, and a “nuclear-powered space shuttle” by 2040. In a report published in the front page of the People’s Daily, a newspaper tightly controlled by the Communist Party, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology specified that nuclear-powered spacecraft would allow for larger payloads and enable China to commercially explore and exploit the natural resources available in space by 2040. Prof. Wang Chunghui, Associate Professor of Aerospace Propulsion at the School of Astronautics at Beihang University, stated, “The nuclear vessels are built to colonize the solar system and beyond.” This perspective to achieve the capacity to realize human colonization in space was supported by Liu Hong, chief designer of the Yuegong-1.

China’s societal interest in outer space has increased incrementally over the last few years with a surge in Chinese science fiction novels, including the world famous The Three Body Problem, as well as increased private sector space companies established since 2016 such as OneSpace, LinkSpace, and LandSpace. President Xi Jinping has made China’s mission in outer space a priority. The critical importance of outer-space to the Communist Party is determined by the fact that space scientists and policy makers were a major player in the 19th Communist Party of China National Congress held last year. Xi has made it his priority to promote space scientists to important political positions, to include the promotion of former general manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology, Ma Xingrui, to governor of Guangdong province, China’s largest provincial economy in 2017. China Academy of Space Technology president Yuan Jiajun, who led the Shenzhou human space program, was made acting governor of Zhejiang province. Such focused promotions reflect two things. That the space scientists/policymakers have delivered on their promises. And that they are being rewarded for their successes.

China’s strategy to establish long-term mission goals for outer space, incrementally build its space capacity and institutions, demonstrate technological prowess, and reward achievements in space implies that it will make every effort to meet the goals its space institutions have set for the country. It may not be not long before we see China’s permanent presence on the lunar surface given it has met its deadlines so far, including the launch of Chang’e-4. Its ability and commitment to get to the far side of the Moon firs and to enable long-term presence will empower China to set the rules of the game in outer space.


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