China became only the third nation to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon, as Chang’e 3 – the first visitor from earth for over 35 years – touched down safely on a flat plain facing the Earth today.
A lunar rover, nicknamed “Jade Rabbit,” is due to start exploring the lunar surface by Sunday, burnishing China’s credentials as a space power and bringing it a step closer to putting a man on the moon.
“This is a very significant step for their space program,” says Gregory Kulacki, who studies China’s efforts in space for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s a prospecting mission, their first real chance to test whether there are mineral resources on the moon.”
Much of the equipment on the rover, including a radar device that can “see” 300 feet beneath the moon’s surface, is designed to analyze rocks and identify minerals and other potentially useful elements. The prospect of mining the moon still inspires Chinese scientists as it once did American space enthusiasts, though some observers say the scientists are simply seeking justifications for their large budgets.
The 1979 United Nations Moon Agreement bans national ownership of lunar resources, but neither China nor the United States has signed it. The US and the former Soviet Union are the only other two nations to complete successful soft - or controlled - lunar landings; the last was the Soviet Union in 1976.
“Jade Rabbit” is named for a pet belonging to Chang’e the goddess of the moon in Chinese legend. It is expected to transmit information back to earth for several months. If it works well, China’s next robotic mission to the moon will try to recover material and return it to earth for closer analysis, officials say.
A space station by 2020?
Meanwhile China’s manned space exploration program, run by the military, is aiming to set up an orbiting space station by 2020, though it appears to be somewhat behind schedule. On previous missions, Chinese astronauts, known here as – “taikonauts” – have successfully tested space walk and docking technology.
Chinese policymakers are expected to decide sometime in the next two years whether to merge the manned and lunar probe programs to try a manned moon landing in the next decade. That would make China the second nation, after the United States, to launch such a program.
The success of China’s space ventures have translated into “geostrategic influence and a perception of regional leadership,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China’s space program who teaches at the US Naval War College.
That has not escaped the notice of regional rival space power India. New Delhi’s own plans for a moon rover have run into trouble and are unlikely to bear fruit for several years, according to the government.
Instead, Indian scientists have raced to put together a cut-price Mars mission in just 15 months. The Indian Mars probe, dubbed “Mangalyaan,” successfully left earth orbit two weeks ago, in a critical maneuver that put it on course to reach the Red Planet next September.
China’s own Mars probe burned up two years ago when the Russian rocket that was carrying it failed.
Though political leaders in Beijing may like China’s space program because “it is helpful in improving China’s international status and boosts Chinese peoples’ confidence,” that is not what motivates scientists working on the lunar probes, says Jiao Weixin, professor of earth and space science at Peking University in Beijing.
Struggling to catch up with US, Russian, and European space researchers, “we have made few contributions” to space exploration, says Prof. Jiao. “As our economy allows, we should do more to expand human knowledge of space.”
Moon mining “is a very distant prospect,” he adds, and “any moon program requires international cooperation.”
That is currently out of the question. The US Congress, through legislation funding NASA, has banned the US space agency from having anything to do with the Chinese, and even made it hard for America’s European partners to share information with their Chinese colleagues.
“The scientists on China’s space program are well funded and have a lot of work to do,” says Dr. Kulacki. “But they feel isolated. For them, prestige and success means their ability to contribute to the development of international space science and exploration.”