China's race to the moon — their new lander is a small step towards a great leap
China's new moon lander is part of an ambitious plan for space exploration
Late last week, China launched its ambitious Chang'e-4 moon mission. The spacecraft is carrying a robotic lander and rover that will make an unprecedented attempt at a landing on the far side of the moon early in the New Year. But one observer of China's space program thinks this mission is another indication that China has become a legitimate space superpower and could be in a position to win the race to return humans to the moon.
China's space program
Brian Harvey is a Dublin-based writer on space issues, and author of China in Space: The Great Leap Forward. He says space provides a platform for China's military interests and well as international prestige.
This is still relatively early days for its ambitious moon program, called "Chang'e," and named after the Chinese Moon goddess). The program began in the early 1990's and has included a couple of missions to map the moon as well as one - Chang'e-3 - that deployed a rover, which is still operational.
Chang'e-4 will be the first mission from any program to land on the far side of the moon. Its lander will set down in the oldest and deepest impact crater on the Moon, called the South Pole-Aitken basin.
The far side of the Moon
The far side of the moon is much more rugged and densely cratered than the side that faces Earth. Researchers think the rocks in this location are much older and will have a different composition from those returned to Earth by the Apollo missions. It is also possible that this crater is so deep it may contain material from the Moon's inner mantle.
Chang'e-4's lander will carry an x-ray spectrometer as well as ground penetrating radar to figure out the age and composition of the rock. But there are challenges to operating on the far side of the Moon. Communication is the biggest one because the far side is shielded from various radio and satellite networks on or above Earth.
China will communicate with the rover through a relay satellite positioned to stay in contact with both the far side of the Moon and the Earth at all times.
The Moon and beyond
The China National Space Administration has said that its long term goal is a series of manned lunar surface missions beginning around 2030. This means China could return humans to the Moon before NASA. But before that happens, China may win another 'race'.
Part of Chang'e-4's mission is to prepare the way for Chang'e-5, which is scheduled to bring back samples from the far side of the Moon next year. That mission will be a test to see if it is possible to bring back the first-ever samples from Mars, perhaps around 2028 .