Chasing the Moon: China's Quest to Lead the Technological Space Race
China's foray into space exploration began in the late 20th century and has experienced remarkable growth in the early 21st century. Initially, there was some criticism about China's space program, and it was often mentioned that China is reverse-engineering Russian technology. However, over some time, China has consolidated its science, technology and innovation base and found rapid progress in Space. Initially, China started with investments in arenas like launcher development, remote sensing, meteorology and communications. Subsequently, they developed a navigation program called BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. Their manned mission to Space happened in 2003, and by 2022 they have successfully established their space station. Almost for the last two decades, China is also known for working on the Moon program, and this article specifically focuses on China's Lunar agenda and how it attempts to demonstrate technological dominance.
In 2004, China initiated the "Chang'e Programme," a lunar exploration project to study the Moon from a scientific perspective. The purpose behind developing this program was to gain insights into lunar resources, advance space technology, and stimulate the development of technology-driven industries. The program was conceptualised as a four-phase program. The first phase involved launching and placing a satellite (orbiter) in the Moon's atmosphere to help scan the Moon's surface. Such mapping of the Moon's surface is essential for undertaking future missions. The second phase is about soft-landing a robotic system consisting of lander and rover units. The purpose is to allow the rover to travel on the Moon's surface and collect observations. The third phase returns the samples (lunar dust/soil and small rocks) to the Earth. Establishing a lunar robotic research station is the agenda of the fourth phase. China is very keen to undertake a human mission to space, and they aspire to have a Chinese human become the Neil Armstrong of the 21st century.
Chang'e 1 was the first aspirational launch of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) on October 24 2007. It was primarily aimed at capturing the High-definition 3D Mapping of moon topography for future projects of the soft landing along with the Primary evaluation and basic understanding of lunar topography and mineralogy. Soft landing is essential for lunar missions because of the safety of landers and rovers, including instruments to conduct various lunar-based experiments. By executing soft landings, landers and rovers can achieve a delicate touchdown on the lunar surface, mitigating factors such as instabilities and vibrations.
China launched the Chang'e 2 mission on October 1, 2010, to conduct Telemetry, Tracking, and Command (TT&C) network testing at the L2 Lagrange point three years after its predecessor. TT&C systems are crucial for ensuring a successful soft landing on the Moon, providing precise navigation, real-time monitoring of the spacecraft's position and trajectory, and the ability to send commands during landing. TT&C systems also enable continuous tracking, monitoring of progress and performance, and immediate responses to unforeseen circumstances. Testing TT&C at the L2 Lagrange point offers enhanced communication, improved observation, reduced mission risks, and collaborative opportunities among spacecraft. Through the Chang'e 3 mission, China achieved its first soft landing on the Moon, successfully deploying the Yutu rover and becoming the third country to accomplish this feat. This achievement enabled advanced scientific experiments to be conducted on the lunar surface.
Building upon these successes, China's Chang'e 4 Mission successfully landed on the far side of the Moon on the South Pole called Aitken Basin. This mission carries the Yutu 2 rover (Jade Rabbit) for performing experiments in the Von Karman Crater. This vast lunar crater spans approximately 180 km in diameter, marking a significant impact site on the lunar surface. The Chang'e-4 mission embarked on a remarkable journey featuring ground-breaking experiments and international collaboration. Scientists from Chongqing University conducted a mini lunar biosphere experiment, successfully growing a cotton plant on the Moon while other plants did not sprout. This marked the first-time biological matter was flown to the lunar surface. The mission also involved contributions from scientists in Sweden and Germany, aiming to study the effects of low gravity, lunar environment, cosmic radiation, and solar-wind interaction. The rover, equipped with a panoramic camera, is currently focused on examining the Moon's surface morphology and geological structure.
China's current lunar mission, Chang'e 5, was launched on November 23, 2020, to return samples from the Moon. The mission's key component, the Chang'e 5 lander, landed gently in the Moon's "Ocean of Storms." The chosen landing site near Mons Rümker, a sizable mound measuring approximately 70 kilometres in diameter, contains recently formed rocks and soil resulting from a significant volcanic event that covered the underlying terrain. Analysis of the returned samples revealed an age of around 2 billion years, significantly younger than the samples collected by NASA's Apollo astronauts, which ranged from 3.1 to 4.4 billion years old. The study of these late-forming lunar rock samples provides valuable insights into the lunar environment during a potential period when life on Earth may have already existed while also contributing to our understanding of the broader evolution of Earth and other celestial bodies within the solar system.
On December 16, 2020, the Chang'e-5 mission achieved a significant milestone by bringing lunar samples back to Earth. This was the first time samples had been returned from the Moon since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 mission in 1976. The mission employed a spacecraft design similar to NASA's Apollo missions, comprising a service module, lander, ascent vehicle, and Earth return module. Using a mechanical scoop and drill, the lander collected 1.7 kilograms of samples from the lunar surface. After gathering the samples, the ascent vehicle linked with the service module and transferred them to an Earth-return capsule. Departing lunar orbit, the service module executed a manoeuvre called "skip re-entry" to reduce speed before safely landing in Inner Mongolia. Once the Moon samples were delivered, the spacecraft headed to the Sun-Earth Lagrange point 1 (L1) for solar observations. The spacecraft returned to the Moon for technology tests in a fuel-efficient Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO), providing valuable insights for future Chinese missions.
A forthcoming stage in China's lunar exploration focuses on the southern pole and far side of the Moon. Chang'e (6 and 7), comprising an orbiter, lander, rover, and a compact flying detector, will explore shaded craters in search of indications of water ice. The mission will be facilitated by a newly deployed communications relay satellite. Chang'e 6 was initially intended as a backup for the Chang'e 5 mission 2020 and was later repurposed to collect samples from the lunar nearside and transport them back to Earth. Afterwards, the Chang'e 8 mission, planned for 2028, aims to evaluate the feasibility of 3D printing and utilising local resources on the Moon. This mission will pave the way for establishing the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in the 2030s. Initially unmanned, the ILRS is envisioned to eventually accommodate astronauts for extended periods starting in approximately 2035. China and Russia are actively seeking collaboration with other countries to participate in this ambitious project.
President Xi Jinping views that exploring the vast cosmos, developing the space industry, and building China into a space power is China's eternal dream. For him, there is also a cultural connection between Space and planets to China's population. China believes that space exploration offers an opportunity for advancing the human race. In 2022, China's White Paper on Space mentioned that China would continue to study and research the plan for a human lunar landing. The US is looking at China's space program in general and the Moon program in particular from a scientific and strategic point of view. They understand that China is using Space as an instrument to challenge the technological supremacy of the US. According to then-Vice President Michael Pence (2019), the United States and China are engaged in a new space race with even higher stakes than the historical space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. As per him, China is ambitious to gain control of the strategic high ground on the Moon and become the only spacefaring nation globally.
China is keen to demonstrate its technological superiority to the rest of the world and feels that it can establish technological prowess if it can manage the human mission to the Moon before the United States. Their Moon program is progressing almost on schedule. The US is also working on a major planetary expedition called the Artemis program. This program is about reaching the Moon, Mars and beyond.  At present, 27 member states are part of this program. The US proposes sending a woman and a person of colour to the Moon under the Artemis program soon. It would be interesting to see who reaches the Moon's surface first.
Image Source: @AJamesMcCarthy, @MatherneConnor Aug 21, 2022), https://twitter.com/AJamesMcCarthy/status/1561125464369795073
 Sam Wong, "First moon plants sprout in China's Chang'e 4 biosphere experiment", New Scientist, January 15, 2019, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2190704-first-moon-plants-sprout-in-chinas-change-4-biosphere-experiment/
 Deng Xiaoci and Fan Anqi, "Exclusive: China, Russia To Sign New 5-Year Space Cooperation Program, Build Intl Lunar Station By 2035: Roscosmos", Global Times, December 29, 2021. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202112/1243731.shtml
 A. Dangwal, "To Counter NASA's $100 Billion Artemis Program, China Advances Its Low-Cost Lunar Base Mission By Eight Years", Eurasian Times, December 30, 2021, https://eurasiantimes.com/to-counter-nasas-100-billion-artemis-program-china-advances-its-low-cost-lunar-base-mission-by-eight-years/