What is China Doing on the Dark Side of the Moon?

CNSA / CLEP

One year ago last month, a Chinese robot touched down on the dark side of the moon.

It was the first probe to land on the side of the moon that permanently faces away from Earth as both bodies circle around the sun. And if Beijing realizes its ambitions in coming years, it won’t be the last time it makes history—and threatens U.S. dominance in space.

The Chang’e 4 probe and the Yutu 2 rover it carried have stayed busy photographing and scanning minerals, cultivating cotton, potato and rapeseeds, growing yeast, and hatching fruit-fly eggs in the moon’s low gravity.

The experiments are intriguing in their own right, but China’s real agenda is more than scientific. For decades, Beijing has been building the infrastructure for an eventual manned mission to the moon, effectively duplicating what the United States achieved in 1969 and hopes to achieve again before 2024.

The reasons for this latter-day space race are clear, experts said, even if the real-world pay-off isn’t.

“Space has always been symbolic of leadership, through prestige, that translates into strategic influence,” Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, told The Daily Beast. “China seeks to be acknowledged as the technology leader in Asia, and there is no more visible place to do that than space.”

While the current, high-profile U.S. moon mission is mired in Trump-era politics, China’s keeps plodding forward with fewer bold pronouncements and more actual accomplishments.

As Chang’e 4 and Yutu 2 work away, the China National Space Administration is quietly planning a follow-up probe. Chang’e 5 could blast off this year. Unlike the one-way Chang’e 4, which is limited to bouncing back data via a relay satellite, its successor is designed to collect samples and bring them back to Earth.

Meanwhile, the Chinese space agency has resumed work on its Tiangong 3 space station and is also testing a new manned capsule for deep-space missions.

When the 22-year-old, U.S.-led International Space Station finally craps out some time in the late 2020s or early 2030s, Tiangong could become the only permanent habitat in low Earth orbit. If the United States wants to maintain a significant human presence over Earth after the ISS, it might have no choice but to ask China for permission to embark.

That would make Tiangong the “de facto international space station,” Johnson-Freese argued. Neither NASA nor the Chinese space agency responded to requests for comment.

“China is in a no-lose situation,” Johnson-Freese added via email. “It can ‘beat’ the U.S. (back) to the Moon—or not—but soon thereafter be able to say anything the U.S. can do, we can do, too.”

To be clear, the United States isn’t standing still in space. NASA still leads the International Space Station and in recent years convinced Congress to keep the station in service as long as its basic components were safe and economical.

The U.S. space agency is also deploying a new space telescope and sending probes across the solar system as part of an ever-expanding search for extraterrestrial life.

And then there’s the moon. NASA for years has mulled returning human explorers to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. Not only is there plenty of science to be done, but the moon could also function as a staging base for astronauts heading to Mars. To say nothing of the commercial value of the moon’s minerals.

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Source: The Daily Beast