Flying China to the moon

By landing a rover on the lunar surface,Beijing steals a march on its Asian rivals.

Written by Ajey Lele | Updated: January 9, 2014 11:56 pm

By landing a rover on the lunar surface,Beijing steals a march on its Asian rivals.

China has successfully landed a craft carrying a robotic rover called Jade Rabbit (Yutu) on the surface of the moon on December 14,the first soft landing on the lunar surface in 37 years. It is only the third country,after the US and Russia,to achieve this feat. Yutu has already sent back photos from the moon indicating that the mission has become fully operational.

China’s lunar landing is a major technological triumph for a state that,over a period of time,has made significant progress in the outer space arena. The indigenous nature of China’s space programme is commendable. It may have received assistance from Russia in the initial stages but its indigenous progress in space science during the past decade has been spectacular. China successfully began its manned space programme a decade back and Chinese astronauts have carried out a few space walks. It has also developed a prototype space station and has a well-articulated roadmap for the future. Yutu’s success so far must have reassured the Chinese scientific community about its capabilities. This is because on December 10,after many years,China witnessed a failure in “space” when a Chinese-Brazilian satellite launched by China failed to reached its planned orbit.

China’s eyes have been set on the moon for more than five years now. Its spacecraft to the moon was first successfully launched on October 24,2007 (Chang’e 1),and the second on October 1,2010. The third mission,Chang’e 3,was launched on December 1. The next mission may be launched in 2017,and is expected to bring back rock samples. China also proposes a human mission to the moon around 2030.

China has a pragmatic outlook for its moon programme,undertaking activities to understand the moon’s mineral composition and examine the possibilities of exploration. The Chinese are keen to develop satellite maintenance hubs on the lunar surface and are interested in conducting experiments in zero gravity. At this point,China looks to study the moon for the detection and analyses of the content and distribution of useful elements as well as the types of materials on the surface,while calculating the depth of lunar soil for an eventual human landing. Exploration of the space environment between the earth and moon is also part of the mission,as is the recording of initial solar wind data. China’s ongoing and projected future activities indicate that it has a genuine,long-term interest in the moon,with the understanding that these investments could eventually lead to economic benefits.

In Asia,China is not the only country to be moon-gazing. Two other Asian space powers,Japan and India,also appear to have long-term interests in the moon. And though China appears to have stolen a march on its Asian rivals when it comes to the moon,it was Japan that initiated moon activity much before China or India,with its first and successful mission in 1990. It has made slow and steady progress since then.

India made a spectacular entry in the moon race with its Chandrayaan-1 mission in 2008,which eventually led to a major find about the presence of water molecules on the moon. However,India has failed to sustain the momentum granted by a successful mission,and is yet to launch its second mission. For its second probe (Chandrayaan-2),India has signed an agreement with Russia’s federal space agency,Roscosmos,for a joint lunar research and exploration mission. This mission was expected to take off around the 2013-14 timeframe and a rover was to land on the moon’s surface. Unfortunately,Roscosmos is facing problems and India too has not yet been able to successfully develop the cryogenic technology required for the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV),which was expected take this mission to the moon. In a year’s time,perhaps,India could go solo and launch Chandrayaan-2.

Globally,there have been some apprehensions about China’s space programme owing to the obvious military angle and the possibility of Beijing developing space weapons. It’s true that the moon programme could allow China to develop various technologies and it would also have strategic significance. However,it would be naïve to believe China needs a moon programme to do this. China is probably aiming to become the first country in the 21st century to put a man on the moon,assuming that such an achievement could demonstrate to the rest of the world who the world leader in technological capability is.

The writer is research fellow,Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses,Delhi.

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