GP Insights # 453, 20 December 2020
On 17 December, the Chang'e-5 capsule carrying samples of rocks and soil from the moon landed safely in the northern Inner Mongolia region. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) director Zhang Kejian declared the mission a success.
What is the background?
First, China Chang'e-5 mission. It was the first mission in the past four decades to retrieve lunar surface samples after orbiting the moon for weeks. On the day of launch, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted that the lunar exploration will benefit "international cooperation and the peaceful use of space." Chang'e-5 mission focused on collecting two kilograms (4.5 pounds) of material from a volcanic plain on the moon known as Mons Rümker. This trip boosts President Xi's plans of achieving the "space dream". China became the third country to retrieve samples after the US in the 1960s followed by the Soviet Union's Luna 24 mission of 1976. With the samples, scientists hope to study the Moon's origins, the formation, and its volcanic activities. Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of CNSA said these samples would be shared with scientists and research teams of different countries.
Second, China's lunar exploration program- Chang'e, named after a mythical Chinese Moon goddess. In February 2004, China started the lunar space exploration program, which is an ongoing robotic mission under CNSA. The program incorporates lunar orbiters, landers, rovers, and sample return spacecraft, launched using Long March rockets. The lunar exploration has completed its three phases of 'orbiting, landing, and return'. The first two Chang'e spacecraft were orbiters circling the moon. In the second phase, Chang'e-3 and 4 joined the US and the Soviet Union after their successful landing on the moon. Chang'e-4 also became the first to land on the far side of the moon. Finally, Chang'e-5 has achieved multiple firsts including the first-ever takeoff from the lunar surface, the first rendezvous and docking at lunar orbit, and a successful return to the earth. The fourth phase focuses on launching Chang'e-6, Chang'e-7, and Chang'e-8, to explore the Moon's South Pole and to develop a robotic research station. China's lunar mission aims to build a base on the moon by 2029.
Third, China's larger space explorations and ambitions. Mao Zedong, after the launch of humankind's first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957, said during the National Congress of the CPC in 1958, "We need to develop the artificial satellite too". China launched its first satellite in 1970 on a Long March I rocket, followed by its first human spaceflight in 2003, making Yang Liwei the country's first "taikonaut" (Chinese astronaut). In 2006, the CNSA during the 11th Five-year Plan said that China will be starting its deep space exploration focusing on Mars. It aims to set up its first unmanned Mars exploration by 2033. China currently plans to build a permanent space station by 2022.
Fourth, China's space agency. The CNSA is a national space agency created in 1993. It has made significant strides in the space domain since its creation. In 2015-16 China tested four launch vehicles: Long March (LM) 5, LM6, LM7 and LM8. These vehicles were designed to carry payloads of different categories. It has also successfully launched Earth observation satellites for remote sensing under the Yaogan Weixing series. A 2016 white paper on China's space domain identified three core interests. First, space-based navigation. In August 2020 China completed the BeiDou Navigation satellite system constellation. Second, developing a space station. Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2, both of which have been decommissioned, were initial prototypes of China's space station. In the next two years, China will be carrying out 11 launches with 18 crew members for the space station project. Third, interplanetary missions. Tianwen-1, China's Mars probe, is expected to reach and begin orbiting the planet by February 2021. Other Chinese interplanetary missions include an asteroid probe and a mission to orbit Jupiter.
What does it mean?
The landing on the dark side of the moon has opened a new historical advent in space exploration. Space will now become a new strategic location for interaction between countries. The US-China competition may spill in space.
The timing of Mike Pence's naming of the space force, the 'Guardians', and their role in protecting American interests, may indicate the zero sum outlook of the Trump administration. This may challenge the Biden administration to maintain America's preeminence in space and make space a confrontational or cooperative arena.