China just landed a vehicle on the moon’s unexplored far side, showing its growing prowess in space — and possibly posing a significant challenge to the United States.
Thursday’s landing of the Chang’e-4 — named after a moon goddess from Chinese myths — is a major milestone in space exploration. It’s the first landing of a rover on the moon’s so-called “dark side,” which always faces away from Earth (though it does receive some sunlight). The mission could allow the Chinese, and the rest of humanity, to learn more about the moon’s origins and even how to extract its valuable minerals.
Some experts say the China mission is also a test — and that the country plans to send humans to land on the moon in the coming years. If that happens, those Chinese astronauts would be the first people to set foot on Earth’s satellite in roughly five decades.
Regardless of what comes next, the Chang’e-4 mission shows China has overcome huge hurdles to become a major space player. Here’s one example: Rovers can’t easily communicate with ground control when they land on the far side of the moon, so to circumvent that problem, Beijing launched a satellite that relays the rover’s data and images.
While China is doing things now that the US largely did in the 1960s and ’70s, Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China’s space program at the US Naval War College, told me the country is “catching up in terms of both technology and achievements.” It has done so despite US efforts to thwart China’s space ambitions, she added.
Wu Weiren, the moon mission’s chief designer, told China’s state-run CCTV on Thursday that “China is on the road to becom[ing] a strong space nation.” In short, it’s clear that Thursday’s mission has increased Beijing’s confidence in its space abilities — and that could signal problems for the US in the future.
China is making big strides in space. The US isn’t happy about it.
Johnson-Freese told me that China has made steady advancements in space mainly to gain prestige and strategic influence there. “China has very deliberately set its goals on ‘firsts,’” she said. “Record books are important when playing catch-up.”
Examples abound. In 2016, China finished building the world’s largest radio telescope, which, among other things, looks for signs of alien life. It also built “Space City” in Beijing, a major complex of buildings housing the government’s manned space program. And the country has plans to construct a new space station and a base on the moon, and even launch a mission to Mars.
Beijing’s increasing abilities and ambitions in space worry Washington tremendously. In fact, one of the Trump administration’s explicit reasons for wanting a Space Force — a whole new US military branch for space operations — is to counter China.
“As their actions make clear, our adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already and the United States will not shrink from this challenge,” US Vice President Mike Pence said in August 2018.
Luckily, Thursday’s rover landing doesn’t appear to have any direct military purpose, but it could still help China better prepare for a war in space.
“China certainly sees space as a domain critical to the future of warfare, and the lessons they learn from this mission will inform the knowledge that allows them to develop their military space systems,” Adam Routh, an expert on space policy at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, DC, told me. But the US shouldn’t worry too much about this mission, he added, because it is civil in nature and used technology the US already has.
So on the surface, the moon landing is a good-news story: China has just completed something humanity has never done in space, and it could lead to some consequential scientific advancements.
The question now, though, is if this historic mission will serve as a stepping stone to something more nefarious down the line.