In Depth

Will China lead the space race?

Landing of Chang’e-4 probe on far side of the Moon prompts ‘trepidation’ from US and Russia

China has become the first nation ever to land a probe on the far side of the Moon, in what is being described as a breakthrough in human space exploration.

Chinese state-run news agencies are reporting that the robotic Chang’e-4 probe - which lifted off from Xichang in Sichuan province on 7 December - has deployed a lunar rover into the South Pole-Aitken basin, the largest, oldest and deepest crater on the Moon’s surface.

The BBC describes the successful touchdown, at 10:26am Beijing time today (2:26am GMT), as “a major milestone in space exploration”. The spacecraft is carrying instruments that will be used to analyse the unexplored region’s geology and conduct biological experiments.

Analysts have suggested the move may also herald a new era of competition in space exploration between the US, Russia and China.

As The New York Times notes, Chang’e-4 “is one in a coming series of missions that underscore [China’s] ambitions to join - and even lead - the space race”.

Beijing announced last year that it was planning to send astronauts back to the Moon, and has also revealed plans to build and begin operating its own space station by 2022.

Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, suggests politics has shaped the decision to ramp up China’s activities in space, reports the Daily Express.

“There’s a lot of geopolitics or astropolitics about this, it’s not just a scientific mission, this is all about China’s rise as a superpower,” said Davis. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the space programme in China. There’s a lot of nationalism in China, they see China’s role in space as a key part of their rise.”

Celebrating the Chang’e-4 landing, Wu Weiren, chief engineer of China’s lunar exploration programme, said: “It’s a very good start for our future lunar work. We are in the middle of becoming a space power, and I think this is a very important landmark event.

“President Xi [Jinping] has asked us to explore the vast space, build the country into a space power, and work endlessly toward our space dream. We are now in the process of gradually realising this dream.”

Politics aside, scientists worldwide are celebrating the breakthrough this week.

Nasa administrator Jim Brindestin offered what The Guardian’s Mary Dejevsky called a “generous” response from “scientists to scientists” by tweeting: “Congratulations to China’s Chang’e-4 team for what appears to be a successful landing on the far side of the Moon. This is a first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment!”

But Dejevsky claims that the response in political and military quarters in Washington, as in Moscow, “is likely to reflect trepidation” as “there is now a serious newcomer to be considered”.

The New York Times adds that the question of whether China’s lunar mission will reignite something akin to the Cold War space race may hinge on the country’s highly specific choice of mission, rather than a show of financial or technological muscle.

The newspaper points out that while “the Moon is hardly untrodden ground after decades of exploration”, the decision to land in its oldest and deepest crater “may offer insights into the Moon’s origins and evolution”.

The surrounding basin may also be “rich in minerals”, meaning that “if exploiting the Moon’s resources is the next step in space development, a successful mission could leave the Chinese better positioned”, the Times continues.

“Although a latecomer by decades to space exploration, China is quickly catching up, experts say, and could challenge the United States for supremacy in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other fields.”

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