China may have been a lag behind the moon, but when its capsule filled with lunar rocks and earth returned to earth early Thursday, it set the stage for a new space race for decades to come. This time it will be a competition for resources on the moon that could advance deeper exploration of space.
The country’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft collected up to 4.4 pounds of lunar samples from a volcanic plain known as Mons Rümker in a three-week operation that underscored China’s growing capabilities and ambitions in space. It was China’s most successful mission to date.
The United States and the Soviet Union battled for supremacy in an epic space race in the 1960s and 1970s that brought back lunar samples, but that was a different era. Now China is in the fight, and today’s competition – once seemingly the realm of science fiction – could be just as intense and commercial.
The Chinese are eager to showcase their technical skills and explore the solar system. Like the United States, the country has a broader goal of creating a lunar base that can harness its potential resources and serve as a launch pad for more ambitious missions.
Beijing has “made no declarative statement replacing the United States as the leader in space,” said Brendan Curry, chief of operations for the Planetary Society in Washington, DC. “But you definitely want to be a star in space.”
In a statement, the Chinese space agency said a capsule containing the moonstones landed in Inner Mongolia at around 2 a.m. local time (around 1 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday). The capsule had separated from the main spaceship when it was about 3,000 miles above the south Atlantic. At an altitude of about six miles it deployed its parachutes to slow its descent.
Video broadcasts on state television showed that rescue teams arrived at the capsule less than an hour after landing. The capsule may take hours to be transferred to facilities that can confirm the lunar samples are intact.
Space is now quickly becoming just another arena where the two countries could collide. Although China’s military and civil space programs are still keeping pace with those in the United States, the country’s ambitions have been part of the Trump administration’s motivation to build a space force.
Vice President Mike Pence announced plans last year to accelerate America’s return to the moon by 2024. In a speech he warned that China “wants to conquer the strategic plateau of the moon and become the world’s most important space nation”.
Entrepreneurial space companies could further intensify competition between NASA and China. By the time NASA or Chinese astronauts reach the moon, Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, says he will send people to Mars. Even if Mr Musk’s statements turn out to be overly optimistic, the future of space exploration may no longer be dominated by national space agencies.
Some hope that a competition between China and the United States could turn into cooperation. However, at the moment NASA is prevented from working directly with the Chinese space agency or Chinese companies. That provision was incorporated into NASA funding law in 2011 by Frank Wolf, then a Republican Congressman from Virginia, to punish China for its human rights record and protect American aerospace technology.
In the short term, planetary researchers in the United States could be excluded from the scientific bonanza of rocks collected by Chang’e-5, which come from a region of the moon much younger than those previously visited.
While the law doesn’t prevent non-NASA scientists from working with Chinese counterparts, it does prevent Chinese scientists from looking at the lunar rocks that NASA astronauts brought back during the Apollo missions, and China may well give that nudge back.
“Obviously the United States forbids cooperation with China, doesn’t it?” said Xiao Long, a scientist at Wuhan’s Chinese University of Geosciences who advised the Chinese space program. “It is certainly not to be hoped that China will develop quickly. They have already put their cards on the table. It’s not something that is done quietly. “
In a conversation Tuesday with the Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development organization, Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, discussed the prospect of easing the ban on NASA-China cooperation.
“It’s above my pay grade,” said Mr. Bridenstine. “But of course I believe that NASA is an instrument of diplomacy. I believe Asset is a tool that can be used as a pot sweetener for a commercial business, for example. I think it can be used for all kinds of international diplomacy purposes. “
The incoming Biden administration has not yet announced their plans for NASA. But it will likely push back the Trump administration’s 2024 target, which it couldn’t achieve even if President Trump was re-elected due to technical and financial constraints.
In contrast to the uncertainty and regular changes of direction at NASA, China has stuck to its plans and timelines, with the country’s space program serving as a source of national pride that is another instrument of international diplomacy.
China’s leader Xi Jinping has made space a central part of his dream to create a bigger and more powerful China, and despite the occasional setback, the space program has made tremendous strides.
“You can commit to a much longer-term goal,” said Namrata Goswami, an independent analyst and co-author of a new book on space exploration, Scramble for the Skies.
The Chang’e probe development began in the early 2000s when President George W. Bush stated that NASA astronauts would return to the moon by 2020. It continued on this path when the Obama administration canceled this lunar program and focused on more distant targets such as an asteroid and Mars.
The first two Chang’e spaceships were orbiters that orbited the moon. Chang’e-3 landed in December 2013 and China joined the United States and the Soviet Union as the only nation to successfully land there. In January 2019, Chang’e-4 was the first spacecraft to land on the other side of the moon. His rover, called Yutu-2, is still in service and studying lunar geology almost two years later. China is now the only country that has successfully landed on the moon in the 21st century, and has done so three times.
And even when the Trump administration announced a return to the moon, China has shown no urgency to speed up its plans to send Chinese astronauts to the moon in the 2030s. If NASA astronauts arrive earlier, China seems in no rush to beat them.
While China is taking its time with longer-term space targets, the successful Chang’e-5 mission only launched last month, and its swift return with lunar samples provided almost instant gratification. It required engineering and workmanship that China had never attempted before.
Not long after arriving in lunar orbit, Chang’e-5 split into two parts, an orbiter and a lander, which reached the surface on December 1. It then searched for samples that the spaceship put back into lunar orbit, and eventually back to Earth. The lander also raised a small Chinese flag.
China sees its lunar missions not just as a demonstration of its space technology and national pride. The moon is viewed as the base – first as a robot, then perhaps as a human outpost – that will aid space exploration in the decades to come.
Lt. Gen. Zhang Yulin, a former deputy commander of the Chinese astronaut program, wrote in The People’s Daily last year that cislunar space – the area between the earth and the moon – “would become another vast field for the expansion of human habitat.”
Another senior Chinese space program official, Bao Weimin of the state-run China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, summed up the once-seemingly fanciful idea last year that cislunar space could become an economic zone worth $ 10 trillion for the country’s economy generates.
“It’s not just about demonstrating technology,” said Dr. Goswami in a telephone interview. “You begin to articulate economic aspirations in terms of the resources available.”
China wasn’t the only country to bring something back from space in December. A Japanese spaceship, Hayabusa2, has returned to Earth after a six-year voyage on what the country’s space agency calls “large numbers of particles” that scientists will study to determine the building blocks of the solar system’s inner planets, including Earth , to understand.
China’s program now rivals that of the US and Russia in terms of scope, ambition and resources. In the short term, competition between the two countries could take place closer to the earth.
China plans to build a space station in orbit around the earth and has offered to let astronauts from other nations work there. If it is able to achieve that goal, it would make the Chinese orbit outpost a competitor to the US-Russia-led International Space Station.
And the limitations of cooperative study of China’s new supply of lunar rocks will also disappoint many scientists in the United States in the years to come.
“They represent a completely different era in lunar history and will definitely help us understand how our moon evolved,” wrote Clive R. Neal, professor of civil engineering and earth sciences at Notre Dame University, loving the opportunity to examine the new samples.
“Unfortunately,” added Dr. Neal added in his email, “I don’t think this is possible.”
A sad face emoticon followed.
Claire Fu in Beijing contributed to the research.