China’s space plan comes into view from space

June 25, 2024 marked a new “first” in spaceflight history. China’s Chang’e 6 spacecraft brought back rock samples from a vast region on the moon called the South Pole-Aitken Basin.

After Chang’e 6 landed on the “far side” of the moon, on the southern rim of the Apollo Crater, it returned with about 1.9 kilograms (4.2 lb) of rocks and soil, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said.

The moon’s south pole has been earmarked as the site for the future China-led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). This truly international undertaking has partners including Russia, Venezuela, South Africa and Egypt, and is being coordinated by a kind of ad hoc international space agency.

China has a strategic plan to build a space economy and become a world leader in this field. It plans to explore and extract minerals from asteroids and bodies such as the moon, and to use water ice and other useful space resources available in our solar system.

China plans to explore the moon first, then asteroids known as near-Earth objects (NEOs). Then it will move on to Mars, asteroids between Mars and Jupiter (known as main belt asteroids) and Jupiter’s moons, using the stable gravitational points in space known as Lagrange points for its space stations.

Model of the Chang'e 6 spacecraft
Model of the Chang’e 6 spacecraft. Photo: Scharfsinn / Shutterstock via The Conversation

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, very close to the moon’s south pole.

The rim of this large crater has a point that is constantly illuminated. The sun shines on it so much that the landscape is not visible due to long shadows.

As a landing site it is particularly attractive – not only because of the illumination, but also because of the easy access it provides to the inside of the crater. These shadowed craters contain enormous reserves of water ice, which will be essential for the construction and operation of the ILRS, as the water can be used for drinking water, oxygen and rocket fuel.

It’s a bold move, given that the US also has ambitions to establish bases at the moon’s south pole – Shackleton Crater is a prime location. A later Chinese mission, Chang’e 8 (currently scheduled for no earlier than 2028), will aim to extract ice and other resources and demonstrate that it’s possible to use them to support a human outpost.

Both Chang’e 7 and 8 are considered part of ILRS and represent the starting point for an impressive Chinese exploration program.

NASA is currently seeking additional partners for the international agreement known as the Artemis Accords, which were drawn up in 2020. These agreements govern how lunar resources are to be used, and so far 43 countries have signed on.

However, the US Artemis programme, which aims to send humans to the moon again this decade, has been delayed due to technical problems.

Artemis astronaut
The US also plans to land its astronauts on the moon’s south pole. Photo: NASA via The Conversation

It’s normal to experience delays in any complex new space program. The next mission, Artemis II, will take astronauts around the moon without landing, but has been delayed until September 2025. Artemis III, which will bring the first humans to the lunar surface since the Apollo era, is not scheduled to launch until September 2026.

While the Artemis timeline could go back even further, China could make its plans to land humans on the moon a reality as early as 2030. Some commentators are even questioning whether the Asian superpower can beat the US to the moon landing target.

Geopolitics in space

Will the US land men on the moon before the end of the decade? I think so. Can China do the same by 2030? I doubt it – but that’s not the point.

China’s space program is growing systematically in a consistent and integrated manner. Its missions do not appear to have encountered the serious technical problems that other ventures have encountered – or perhaps we are simply not being told about them.

Tiangong Space Station
China has a permanently manned space station, called Tiangong, in orbit around Earth. Photo: Alejo Miranda/Shutterstock via The Conversation

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

There is a plan to have it permanently inhabited by at least three taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) by the end of the decade. By the time this happens, the International Space Station, which orbits at the same altitude, will be dismantled and sent on a fiery descent into the Pacific Ocean.

Geopolitics is returning as a force in space exploration in a way we perhaps haven’t seen since the space race of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s quite possible that the US Artemis III mission and the Chinese Chang’e 7 and Chang’e 8 missions will all aim to land at the same location, close to Shackleton Crater.

Only the crater rims could theoretically serve as good landing sites, so China and the US may have no choice but to exchange plans and use this renewed phase of space exploration as a new era of diplomacy.

While the two superpowers remain committed to their national priorities, they may need to agree with their partners on common principles when it comes to lunar exploration.

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 1970s. Now it certainly is.

Simonetta Di Pippo is director of the Space Economy Evolution Lab at Bocconi University

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

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