China sets its sights on the moon: lunar probe planned before year’s end

Experts say China's space-exploration plans are part scientific ambition, part symbol of national prowess.

Li Gang/Xinhua/AP
Ground crew check on the re-entry capsule of Shenzhou 11 spacecraft, which brought back a pair of Chinese astronauts from a monthlong stay aboard China's space station, after it landed in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Nov. 18, 2016.

Between 1969 and 1972, the Apollo astronauts brought back 842 pounds of lunar rocks and dust. Some of these samples have gone missing over the years, but most remain under lock and key at the Johnson Space Center’s lunar sample building.

Somewhere in China, a similar facility is likely being prepared. In the second half of this year, the country plans to launch its Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission. As explained by the state-run China Daily last week, a lunar orbiter is scheduled to drop a lander to the surface, where it is expected to collect samples, then launch back up to the orbiter for the return trip to Earth.

Sample-return missions enable scientists to turn their full arsenal of tools and expertise toward space rocks. But observers say that China’s space program is about more than intellectual curiosity. The country’s leaders hope to boost its international reputation with each high-profile mission.

"Not long ago, the United States' Trump Administration revealed an ambition to return to the moon,” the official Science and Technology Daily wrote, as reported by Reuters. “Our country also announced a series of deep space exploration plans.”

China began its space program on a nationalistic note in 1970, launching a small satellite that could only broadcast a snippet of a Cultural Revolution anthem. The past few decades have yielded more impressive achievements. China launched its first crewed spacecraft in 2003: a lunar orbital mission. Two crewed orbiting space stations and a lunar rover followed suit.

Even more ambitious goals lie ahead, as explained in a white paper published by the China National Space Administration last December. It plans to follow up on this year’s sample-return mission with a landing on the far side of the moon in 2018, and a Mars rover in 2020. Reuters reports that it hopes to land humans on the moon by 2036.

The CNSA isn’t shy about the national pride that drives these missions. To “build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly," the government declares in the December white paper. Space policy expert John Logsdon describes its program as “goals that any ambitious space country would want to pursue,” in a January interview with The Atlantic.

But there are more “ambitious space countries” now than in the Apollo era, meaning that this isn’t your grandfather’s space race. India, rather than China, became the first Asian country to reach Mars, placing a probe into orbit around the Red Planet in 2014. And the CNSA’s white paper also aims to strengthen “space cooperation” through the country’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, which includes developing countries like Peru and Bangladesh, but not the US.

While China’s efforts may ultimately bring its trading and political partners closer to the stars, experts see plenty of self-interest in the country’s space ambitions.

“When you are the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon, that says something about your science and technology, that says something about your industry," the Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng told the Atlantic. "It says something about what you can achieve that in turn is going to affect how countries view China.”

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