By landing the first lunar explorer on the far side of the moon, where it transmitted pictures back to Earth using a specially designed relay satellite, China has demonstrated a mastery of advanced space exploration techniques rivaling those of NASA. The race to establish human colonies on the moon has begun.
The mission “has opened a new chapter in humanity’s exploration of the moon,” the China National Space Administration declared.
James Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University, agreed, telling The New York Times, “This is a historic step in international scientific exploration of the moon, opening up the ‘Luna Incognita’ of the lunar far side to surface exploration for the first time.”
The Chinese achievement can lead to new human knowledge both of the moon itself and the farther reaches of space. For instance, radio astronomy conducted from the far side of the moon can pick up faint signals of distant galaxies that cannot be detected from our planet, with its noisy radio spectrum. The Chinese lunar lander, Chang’e-4, named for the Chinese goddess of the moon, will carry out radio astronomy experiments.
The Times reports that Chang’e-4 will also sample the moon’s surface looking for water and minerals that would be essential resources for a manned moon base. And it carries an experiment to see if plants can be grown on the the moon.
These are practical steps for assessing the possibilities of colonization. NASA has planned similar probes of moon resources, but these have been delayed until the 2020s. China not only beat us to that, it also has announced plans for another moon lander mission this year, a Mars landing next year, a third Earth-orbiting space station in three years, and a lunar base within the next decade. It’s a dizzying pace that puts the Chinese on firm footing in the space race.
For the first time last year, China made more rocket launches, 38, than any other country.
Dr. Namrata Goswami, an Indian scholar of space exploration, told the Times, “China views this landing as just a steppingstone, as it also views its future manned lunar landing, since its long-term goal is to colonize the moon and use it as a vast supply of energy.” She added that the region of the moon where the landing took place might become a base for missions to other planets, comparing it to the way “navies viewed coaling stations, for purposes of refueling and resupply.”
The Chinese probe landed in an area of the far side of the moon that is viewed by some scientists as potentially rich in the kinds of resources that a lunar refueling base would require. The area is named for Theodore von Karman, an American pioneer in astrophysics who founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in 1944, an irony that underscores the rapid strides China is making in space exploration.
China also is challenging the United States in a number of other cutting-edge technologies, including artificial intelligence; the fifth generation of mobile communications networks (5G) with greater bandwidth; and quantum computing, which promises much greater computing speed to solve problems in fields such as crypto analysis that may be beyond the capabilities of existing computers.
China also has nearly finished creating its own satellite-based Earth navigation or global positioning system, named Beidou, to compete commercially with the U.S. GPS system. These are the technologies on which fortunes will be made and nations will rise and fall. The Chinese challenge must be taken seriously.