Why China’s Moon Shot Matters


(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF ‘FORTUNE’)

 

By CLAY CHANDLER and EAMON BARRETT

January 5, 2019

As 2019 dawns the separate preoccupations of the United States and China sound a bit like tracks from a Pink Floyd album: while Americans obsess over building “The Wall,” the Chinese have landed a robot on “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

It’s easy to be cynical about China’s moon shot. After years of effort and billions dollars in expense, Beijing has managed to boldly go, well, where America already went—50 years ago. China sent a probe, not an actual person. And, yes, it was both creepy and shameless that in hailing the moon landing, Wu Weiren, the chief designer of the Lunar Exploration Project, riffed off (or ripped off, depending on your point of view) the famous Neil Armstrong quote, declaring: “It’s a small step for the rover, but one giant leap for the Chinese nation.”

Still, China’s successful landing of the Change-e 4 on lunar terrain last Thursday was a significant scientific and technological achievement—one that can’t be dismissed as just another example of Chinese copy-catting. For one thing, China’s effort was the world’s first mission to the surface of the moon’s far side (which, as it turns out, isn’t actually all that dark) and therefore posed unique technical challenges. The far side can’t be seen from earth, and its surface has never been observed up close. Because the moon blocks direct communication from the far side, to transmit images from the probe back to earth, China had to build a separate relay satellite. Moreover, the far side’s surface is soft and powdery, a bit like snow, and so China’s lunar rover, called the Jade Rabbit 2, had to be specially constructed.

As the New York Times points out, the crater where Chinese probe landed is the oldest and deepest on the moon. It may hold clues to the moon’s origins, prove rich in minerals, and possibly serve as a “future refueling base for missions deeper into space.”

China is only the third country, alongside the U.S. and Russia, to send its own astronauts into space aboard its own rockets, and only the U.S. and China have the fiscal and technical wherewithal to mount significant long-term programs for exploring space. China last year launched more rockets into space than any other nation and plans another moon landing, the Chang-e 5, later this year. The country hopes to begin operating its third space station by 2022, and put astronauts on a lunar base sometime in the next decade. Beijing also has plans to to send probes to Mars and return samples of the Martian surface back to earth.

Notably space is yet another sphere where earth’s two technological powerhouses compete but don’t collaborate—and seem almost to inhabit different universes. As the BBC notes, U.S. counter-espionage legislation restricts NASA from working bilaterally with Chinese nationals without express permission from Congress.

More China news below.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
[email protected]

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