Technology & Science·Blog

China's steady march to moon a lesson for West

This week China launched an unmanned probe to the moon, a rehearsal for a future robotic sample-return mission. It's another positive step China is taking towards its own human lunar landing, writes Bob McDonald.

Launch of latest probe a positive step towards China putting a human on the moon

China launched an unmanned probe Oct. 24 atop an advanced Long March 3C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. The experimental spacecraft will fly around the moon and back to Earth in preparation for the country's first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface. (Associated Press)

This week, China launched an unmanned probe to the moon, as a rehearsal for a future robotic sample-return mission. It's another positive step China is taking towards its own human lunar landing.

The probe, named Chang'e-5-T1, was launched from the Xichang Launch Center on a nine-day round- trip mission to the moon. The spacecraft will loop around the moon without landing, then, on the return to Earth, it will release a capsule that will plunge through our atmosphere at more than 40,000 km/hr.

That is much faster than Soyuz capsules returning from the International Space Station or the former space shuttles. That's because returning from the moon is basically falling from a much greater height, so the capsule must survive searing temperatures of thousands of degrees as it turns the air into a hot plasma on the way down.

Then, it will descend by parachute for a hard ground landing back in China.

This mission follows on the success of China's last moon mission in December 2013, Chang'e 3, which landed on the moon and released a small rover

This image of China's first moon rover 'Yutu' - or Jade Rabbit - was taken by the on-board camera of the lunar probe Chang'e-3 on Dec. 15, 2013. Yutu is on the lunar surface in the area known as Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows). (Xinhua/The Associated Press)

If the current mission goes as planned, it will be followed by another landing, scheduled for 2017, that will involve scooping up samples from the lunar surface, loading them into a similar capsule and returning them safely to Earth.

This successful step-by-step progress has become a hallmark of the Chinese space program, which set out a series of goals more than a decade ago and has been systematically achieving them pretty much on schedule. They have launched “Taikonauts” into orbit, performed a spacewalk, sent up a small space station module, then occupied it with a crew, including a woman.  

If this pattern continues, there is an excellent chance that a Taikonaut could plant a Chinese flag on the moon, somewhere between 2025 and 2030.

Unlike the rest of the space community (including Canada), which has taken a co-operative international approach to space exploration, China has done it alone. Borrowing Russian technology and then building on it, they have demonstrated a very methodical strategy to climbing the big hill out of the Earth's gravity well. They have stayed with the same technology, making incremental improvements to reach higher and higher.

This picture taken June 12, 2012, shows astronaut Liu Yang (left), together with her colleagues Jing Haipeng (centre) and Liu Wang. They crewed China’s fourth manned mission in space, and were the first to dock with Tiangong-1, China’s space station.

The Russians have done the same thing with their Soyuz capsules, which haven't changed their basic design since the '60s, are still flying and have proven to be the most reliable spacecraft ever built.

The Americans, on the other hand, have developed very capable rockets, such as the huge Saturn Five that went to the moon, then abandoned that for a completely new space shuttle, then abandoned that for yet another design they're now working on to go beyond the moon.

Throwing away your past successes is a very expensive way to fly. In fact, during their final years, each space shuttle launch was costing more than $1 billion, just to go 400 km up to the space station.

If the Chinese are next on the moon, it will be interesting to see if that stimulates another space race, such as the competition between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in the '60s. If it does, it will likely be a tortoise-and-hare scenario, where everyone else scrambles to catch up at huge cost, while the Chinese just continue their steady “Long March” to other worlds.  

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.