For a country that was barred from ever working with the leader in space technology the progress China has made in the last decade has been incredibly impressive. They’ve quickly gone from humble beginnings in 2003 where their first taikonaut made it into orbit to a fully fledged space station in 2013, showing that they have the technical expertise required to consistently attempt envelope pushing activities. Of course whilst the most interesting aspect of any space program is the manned activities (who doesn’t love seeing people in space!) there’s always the quiet sibling in the robotics departments, attempting missions that few humans will be able to attempt. I must admit that until today I was also ignorant of China’s robotic efforts in space but suffice to say they’re just as impressive as their human based accomplishments.
China’s Chang’e program (the name of the Chinese Goddess of the Moon) is a series of lunar spacecraft tasked with creating highly detailed maps and models of the Moon’s surface with the intent that that data will be used for future manned missions. Chang’e 1 was launched back in 2007 and remained in lunar orbit for 2 years. It created the most accurate and detailed sufrace map of the moon to date and, once it was done, plummeted into the surface it just mapped to send up a spray of regolith that could be studied from here on Earth. It’s successor, Chang’e 2, was launched in 2010 and had similar capability (albeit with higher resolution instruments and a lower orbit) but instead of being plunged into the moon at the end of its mission it was instead sent out to do a flyby of asteroid 4179 Toutatis. Its current trajectory will eventually see it hit interstellar space however its likely it’ll run out of fuel long before that happens and the purpose of the extend mission is to validate China’s Deep Space Tracking network.
Chang’e 3, launched just yesterday, will be the first craft China has ever launched that will land on the Moon’s surface. For a first attempt it’s a fairly ambitious little project consisting of both a lander and a rover, whereas similar missions usually go for a lander first prior to attempting a rover. The lander is an interesting piece of equipment as it contains a RTG as a power source as well as an ultra-violet telescope, making it the first luna based observatory. Whilst it won’t be anything like the Hubble or similar space telescopes it will still be able to do some solid science thanks to its location and it makes the lander’s useful life much longer than it typically would be.
The rover is just as interesting, being roughly equivalent to the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) in terms of size and weight. It can provide real time video back to Earth and has sample analysis tools on board. The most important instrument it carriers however is a radar on its base allowing it to probe the lunar surface in a level of detail that hasn’t been done before, giving us insights into the make up of the regolith and the crust beneath it. It will be interesting to see what its longevity will be like as its power source is its solar panels (unlike its parent lander) and the lack of atmosphere should mean they’ll remain clean for the forseeable future.
As of right now there’s another 2 more missions in the Chang’e line both of which have similar capabilities with the exception of Chang’e 5 which will be a lunar sample return mission. After that it’s expected that China will start to eye off manned lunar missions, starting with the traditional flag planting operations and then quickly escalating to a fully fledged moon base not long after. It’s quite possible that they’ll accomplish that within the next 2 decades as well as their past accomplishments show how quickly they can churn out envelope pushing missions, something that other space fairing nations have been lacking as of late.
Whilst it might not be of the same heights we saw during the cold war there’s definitely another space race starting to heat up, although this time it’s between the private space industry and China. Whilst it’s likely that China will win the race to the Moon and possibly Mars I can’t help but feel that the private industry isn’t too far behind. Heck, combine Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX and you’ve already got the majority of the Chinese manned program right there! Still this does not detract from the accomplishments the Chinese have made and I only hope that eventually the USA changes its stance on co-operating with them.