China’s space odyssey and the dark side of the Moon

Beijing has a strategic plan to build a space economy and become the world leader in this field

A new “first” in the history of spaceflight was marked on June 25, 2024. China’s robotic Chang’e 6 spacecraft delivered samples of rock back to Earth from a huge feature on the Moon called the South Pole-Aitken basin.

After touching down on the Moon’s “far side,” on the rim of the Apollo crater, it came back with around 1.9 kilograms of rock and soil, the China National Space Administration reported.

The Moon’s south pole is designated as the location for the future China-led International Lunar Research Station.

This truly international endeavor has partners including Russia, Venezuela, South Africa, and Egypt, and is being coordinated by an ad hoc kind of international space agency.

Beijing has a strategic plan to build a space economy and become the world leader in this field. It intends to explore and extract minerals from asteroids and bodies such as the Moon, and to use water ice, and any other useful space resources available in our Solar System.

Robotic mission

China first aims to explore the Moon, then the asteroids known as near-Earth objects. It will then move on to Mars, the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and Jupiter’s moons, using the stable gravitational points in space known as Lagrange points for its space stations.

One of China’s next steps in this strategy, the robotic Chang’e 7 mission, is expected to launch in 2026. It will land on the illuminated rim of the Moon’s Shackleton crater, close to the lunar south, where the angle of the Sun casts long shadows that obscure much of the landscape.

As a landing site, it is attractive – not only because of the illumination but the access it offers to the interiors of the crater, which holds reserves of water ice.

This will be indispensable in building and operating the International Lunar Research Station, as the water can be used for drinking water, oxygen, and rocket fuel.

A visualization of the Shackleton crater at the Moon’s south pole. Photo: NASA

It is a bold move, as the United States also has ambitions to establish bases at the Moon’s south pole – the Shackleton crater is prime real estate.

A later Chinese mission, Chang’e 8, planned for around 2028, will aim to extract ice and other resources and demonstrate it is possible to use them to support a human outpost. Chang’e 7 and 8 are part of Lunar Research Station and Beijing’s exploration program.

NASA is seeking further partners for the international agreement known as the Artemis Accords, established in 2020. These set out how resources on the Moon should be used and to date, 43 countries have signed up.

But Washington’s program, which aims to return humans to the Moon this decade, has been hit with delays due to technical issues.

Lunar surface

It is normal to experience some delays in any complex new space venture. The next mission, Artemis II, will carry astronauts around the Moon without landing on it but has been delayed until September 2025.

Artemis III will ferry the first humans to the lunar surface since the Apollo era, and is planned for no earlier than September 2026.

While this timeline could slip back further, China may deliver on its plans to land humans on the Moon by 2030. Indeed, some commentators have wondered whether the Asian superpower could beat the United States back to the Moon.

Will the US land humans on the Moon before the decade is out? I think so. Can China do the same before 2030? I am doubtful – but this is not the point.

Beijing’s space program is systematically growing in a consistent and integrated way. Its missions appear not to have experienced the serious technical issues that other ventures have encountered – or perhaps we are just not being told about them.

China’s Tiangong space station. Image: China Manned Space Agency

What we know for sure is that China’s space station, Tiangong, which translates as “Heavenly Palace,” is operational at an average altitude of 400 kilometers.

There is a plan to have it permanently inhabited by a minimum of three taikonauts or Chinese astronauts by the end of the decade. By then, the International Space Station, orbiting at the same altitude, will be decommissioned and sent on a fiery descent into the Pacific.

Geopolitics is back as a force in space exploration in a way we haven’t seen since the space race of the 1950s and ’60s. It’s possible that the US Artemis III mission and China’s Chang’e 7 and Chang’e 8 missions will all want to land at the same location close to the Shackleton crater.

First satellite

Only the crater rims can feasibly act as good landing sites, so there may be no choice but for China and the US to exchange plans, and to use this renewed phase of exploration as a new era in diplomacy.

While maintaining national priorities, the two superpowers, together with their partners, may have to agree on common principles when it comes to exploring the Moon.

China has come a long way since its first satellite, DongFangHong 1, was launched on April 24 1970. China was not a player during the original space race to the Moon in the 1960s and ’70s. It certainly is now.

Simonetta Di Pippo is the Director of the Space Economy Evolution Lab at Bocconi University in Milan.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.