Tag Archives: Moon

China-Russia Collaboration Will Speed Up Race For The Moon

The Moon. Photo credit: Raffael Herrmann. Public Domain

IT IS SCARCELY a secret that Beijing and Moscow are teaming up on lunar exploration.

The latest confirmation comes with Wu Yanhua, a deputy director of the China National Space Administration, saying that the two countries aim to complete basic infrastructure construction for a lunar station by 2035. Longer-term plans are to grow the base to the size of a small town with systems for energy, communication and life support.

Wu’s comments came during a briefing on the launch of a white paper on China’s space programme released on January 28.

The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding last March on the building of the lunar research station and are expected to sign the full agreement shortly, perhaps while Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing in February for the Winter Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, Liu Jizhong, director of the administration’s China Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center, says the two countries have already agreed to cooperate on a robotic lunar mission using China’s Chang’e 7 probe and Russia’s Luna-26 orbiter around 2025 to explore water distribution as well as the poles of the moon, particularly to assess if the south pole is suitable for a soft landing. China plans two such robotic probe missions.

Ye Peijian, the chief designer of China’s first lunar probe, has said that the country may be able to send astronauts to the moon for the first time within five years. That would edge the target date for the United States to return astronauts to the moon on a sustained basis under its Artemis program.

The joint Russian-Chinese collaboration and the United States’ Artemis programme are direct rivals in a new race to the moon. The US space agency, NASA, had hoped that its cooperation with Russia, with which it jointly operates the International Space Station, would carry over to Artemis, but Moscow has so given that hope the cold shoulder, reflecting current geopolitical realities.

The space white paper says China would welcome international participation in the lunar research station project, but it is difficult to see the United States or its allies taking up the offer. It might be appealing to countries like Thailand or Saudi Arabia, however.

China’s most recent mission to the moon was the Chang’e 5, which brought back lunar samples last year. A rover set down on the far side of the moon in 2019 is still exploring the surface.

The white paper also lays out China’s other priorities in space over the next five years. As well as completing its Tiangong space station, these include developing cislunar transport systems, space infrastructure, human-crewed spaceflight, deep space exploration and space governance.

It also drops markers for longer-term ambitions to bring back samples from Mars and explore Jupiter and the outer edges of the solar system.

Perhaps most intriguing are the hints the white paper gives about commercialising space. It lists space debris cleaning as a business focus, a rubric under which space tourism, test services, satellites and space biopharmaceuticals also fall. Longer-term, lunar mining is a likely area of potential China-US competition.

The 14th Five-Year Plan, which covers 2021-25 and was released last March, includes a new spaceport for commercial launches. China has made its rocket launches available to private firms since 2014. However, the Peoples’ Liberation Army controls the four existing sites, only one of which supports private launches. An additional launch site could spur the development of commercial space activity, particularly for the satellite industry, and increase the overall launch capacity.

Meeting such commercial ambitions, however, would likely require the transfer of state space technologies to private companies, which could run into national security concerns and other political sensitivities, although any private companies involved would likely be closely aligned with national goals.

Nonetheless, the dual civilian-military development of such technologies, especially those for space debris cleaning, which could be used to capture active satellites as well as space junk will raise red flags in Washington and Brussels.

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China Ups The Ante In The Race To Mars

Rendering of surface of Mars

CHINA HAS LAID down a significant marker in its race to catch up and surpass the United States in space: putting humans on Mars by 2033.

Wang Xiaojun, head of the state-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the country’s leading launch rocket manufacturer, mentioned the target at the Global Space Exploration Conference in St Petersburg earlier this month, adding that China would first have to conduct robotic missions to the red planet before sending taikonauts or building a research base there. 

China currently has a robotic space rover, the Zhurong, which landed in May, exploring the planet’s surface. 

Wang suggested there would be at least five crewed flights to Mars between 2033 and 2044 and sketched out a possible future string of Chinese space relay stations between Earth and Mars along with an interplanetary cargo fleet enabling large-scale development of the planet. That hints at a sustainable colony and mining.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also plans to send crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s after returning to the Moon later this decade. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson describes China as a ‘very aggressive space competitor’.

China is still playing catch-up, however. NASA landed its first rover on Mars in 1997 and fifth in February.

In 2011, the US Congress passed a law banning Nasa from working with China in space. That has propelled the Chinese space programme forward at a rapid pace and made it a symbol of self-reliance. 

Excluded from the International Space Station (ISS), a collaboration between the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and the EU, China is currently constructing its first permanent space station. The Tianhe’s first three taikonauts arrived about a week ago for a three-month set-up stay.

The space station’s operational life is expected to overlap with establishing a base on the Moon, possibly jointly with the Russians, in the mid-2020s and the start of crewed flights to Mars.

With the ISS due to be decommissioned in the mid-2020s, that could create a situation in which all the space nations except the United States were cooperating with China, for lack of alternatives, although private US companies may have established space stations by then.

Beijing’s ambitious space programme lets the country demonstrate that it is a global scientific leader, show off its technological prowess that can underpin both the state programme and a commercial space industry, and quietly but firmly underline its potential military might in space as space technology is inherently dual-use. 

Those are all sources of national pride — and prestige and legitimacy for the Party — and the hallmarks of a superpower. But, equally, they are grounds for suspicion outside China and an extension of US-China terrestrial rivalry into outer space. 

The capabilities of Chinese anti-satellite weaponry particularly concern Washington. President Joe Biden has shown no inclination to disband the US’s military’s Space Command and Space Force initiated by his predecessor.

Beijing’s political commitment to human spaceflight is strong, even if it is the most dangerous, challenging and expensive part of China’s space programme while being the militarily least valuable and having the most uncertain long-term commercial benefits. Its priorities could change if the geopolitical context changes.


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The Men On The Moon

The call by Newt Gingrich, the American politician who is seeking the Republican party’s presidential nomination, for the U.S. to establish a Moon base “by the end of my second term”, which, if it happens, would be 2020, throws down a gauntlet to China’s ambitious space program. “It is clearly in [the U.S.’s] interest,” he said, to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere near to matching.”

China’s space scientists have nursed a long-term ambition to establish a lunar base for at least a couple of decades. Gradually, the reality of the country’s space program is catching up. An unmanned mission to the Moon is planned for next year. The recently published white paper on China’s space program publicly confirmed for the first time the scarcely secret goal of following that with a manned mission. It was vague about timing, saying only that the tasks for the next five years include conducting “studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”.

As recently as a couple of years ago, space officials were talking about that happening in 2025 to 2030, but more recently 2025 is being mentioned as a by-the-latest date rather than as an at-the-earliest one, with a Moon base to follow by 2030. That coincidentally is the date Japan has pencilled in for setting up a manned Moon base.

Whether the Chinese, even if they got there before the Japanese (or the Russians who have similar ambitions), would now find the Americans already there is the new question. Certainly, if Americans put their minds to it they could pull it off, just as an earlier generation responded to President John F. Kennedy’s call in the face of the Soviet Union putting a man in orbit around the Earth to, within a decade, land an American on the Moon and bring him home. Whether Americans today have the optimism and the money is another matter.

NASA has Bush-era plans it can dust off, plans the Obama administration scaled back because of cost. Some U.S. legislators have called for NASA astronauts to return to the Moon for first time since 1972 by 2022. Gingrich proposes to involve the private sector, including in the development of space tourism and manufacturing, and to spur innovation and technological breakthroughs with both civilian and military applications. Yet eight years would be a tight deadline to pull off a mission of such complexity, regardless of how neatly it dovetails with election-campaign rhetoric. For one, a heavy lift rocket would have to be developed.

There is also the little matter of Gingrich both being nominated to run and then winning the Presidency. President Obama has expressed more interest in going to Mars than returning to the Moon.

The space world has long debated the relative scientific value of manned versus unmanned space exploration and whether returning to the Moon is a diversion from a grander goal of interplanetary travel. One alternative to having humans living on the Moon, or perhaps a first step towards that, would be to establish an unmanned lunar base. While that could be an adjunct to the International Space Station, Japan’s space agency has a plan to have a small but permanent automated base on the Moon run by humanoid robots by 2020. What odds China’s space officials are now looking at what more they could do with the robots they are planning to send to the Moon in 2017 to gather lunar samples if they left some behind?

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China’s Moon Dreams

That a long-term ambition of Beijing’s space program is to put a Chinese on the Moon has been as badly a kept secret as the PLA-Navy’s wish to establish a carrier fleet. This Bystander noted in 2010, as China launched its second lunar probe, intended to test technologies that will allow it to land and return an unmanned mission on the Moon in 2013 (see artists impression below), that 2025 to 2030 had been pencilled in for a manned flight. The recently published white paper on China’s space program publicly confirms the goal but adds nothing to the potential timing, saying only that the tasks for the next five years include conducting “studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”.

Only a dozen people, all Americans, have put foot on the Moon. The most recent were there in December 1972. Like the U.S. and the old Soviet Union before it, China sees its space program as both fostering the development of advanced technologies for military and civilian use, and as a statement of its emergence as a world power. The illustration above from state media suggests that China’s space scientists may have more than dreams of just getting one of their countrymen to the Moon and back again dancing in their heads.

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Upward And Onward For China’s Space Program

In the latest stage of its ambitious space program, China has launched its second Moon probe, this one intended to test technologies that will allow it to land an unmanned mission on the Moon in 2013. The Chang’e 2 probe sits atop a Long March 3C rocket that took off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan and is expected to reach lunar orbit in five days. One of its tasks will be to photograph and map the Moon’s surface for possible landing sites for a robotic rover.

China is one of an elite group of three that has put a man in space. It has launched three manned space flights since the first in 2003. Though its space program got off to a slow start and is running behind its original timetable, it is making up for lost time. Putting a Chinese on the Moon is a goal for sometime between 2025 and 2030. Like the U.S. and the old Soviet Union before it, China sees its space program as both fostering the development of advanced technologies for military and civilian use, and as a statement of its emergence as a world power.


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China Crash Lands Lunar Probe As Space Industry Drives Ahead

Chang’e 1, China’s first lunar probe, has been crash landed on the moon, state media reports. But Chang’e 2 will make a soft landing and Chang’e 3 return home.

That is the three-phase plan for the moon mission that started with Chang’e 1’s launch in October 2007. Chang’e 3 is expected to be launched in 2017 and will collect mineral samples. Chang’e 1 provided a survey of the entire surface of the moon. Its controlled crash to end its mission was about testing China’s ability to fly a moon probe by remote control. Landing a man on the moon remains a long-term objective, but no date for that has been made public.

The next important goal for China’s ambitious space plan is the launch of a space module next year, with a space docking in 2011 as the first steps towards building an orbiting space station.  All of which means plenty of work for the country’s growing aerospace industry and a boost for the development of its rocket technology.

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Moon Shot

China’s long-awaited moon shot is about to happen. The AP reports that China National Space Administration officials say the Chang’e 1 lunar orbiter will be launched between October 24th and 26th.

As I noted in August, a successful flight will add China to an elite club of nations that have sent a spacecraft around the moon — the U.S., Russia and Japan. Beijing is a step closer to being an space power, with the all the commercial and military implications that holds for the rest of the world.

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Where No Chinese Has Gone Before

China is readying itself to join an elite club of nations that have sent a spacecraft into orbit around the moon. The U.S., Russia and Japan are the only existing members. The People’s Daily announced that China’s program has entered the launching phase but did not give a date.

The project is running behind schedule. China, which put a human in space in 2003, had been expected to launch a lunar probe last year, with landing an unmanned vehicle on the Moon happening in 2010-2012 and a mission to return with lunar samples scheduled for around 2015. A manned flight would be next –2020 is the target date that has appeared in press reports. The head of the China National Space Administration has also talked of eventual colonization.

It is getting crowded up their with the U.S., Japan and India all planning lunar launches over the next 18 months. China is not a member of the 16-nation consortium building an international space station expected to be completed by 2010, but has plans for its own manned space station.

“The moon probe project is the third milestone in China’s space technology after satellite and manned spacecraft projects, and a first step for us in exploring deep space,” Sun Laiyan, head of the CNSA, said earlier this year. China is now only a short step from being an space power, with the all the commercial and military implications that holds for the rest of the world.

Update: The People’s Daily reports that mission controllers lost contact with China’s first manned space flight as Shenzhou V re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, putting the landing at risk. In the event the craft landed safely but 9 kms from its intended landing site.

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