China’s Space Ambitions: Robot on Mars, a Human on the Moon

BEIJING (AP) -
In this Dec. 8, 2018, file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, the Chang’e 4 lunar probe launches from the the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. (Jiang Hongjing/Xinhua via AP, File)

China’s landing of its third probe on the moon is part of an increasingly ambitious space program that has a robot rover en route to Mars, is developing a reusable space plane and is planning to put humans back on the lunar surface.

The Chang’e 5, the first effort to bring lunar rocks to Earth since the 1970s, collected samples on Wednesday, the Chinese space agency announced. The probe landed Tuesday on the Sea of Storms on the moon’s near side.

Space exploration is a political trophy for the ruling Communist Party, which wants global influence to match China’s economic success.

China is a generation behind the United States and Russia, but its secretive, military-linked program is developing rapidly. It is creating distinctive missions that, if successful, could put Beijing on the leading edge of space flight.

In 2003, China became the third nation to launch an astronaut into orbit on its own, four decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Its first temporary orbiting laboratory was launched in 2011 and a second in 2016. Plans call for a permanent space station to be launched after 2022.

This week’s landing is “a historic step in China’s cooperation with the international community in the peaceful use of outer space,” said a foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying.

“China will continue to promote international cooperation and the exploration and use of outer space in the spirit of working for the benefit of all mankind,” Hua said.

China also has launched its own Beidou network of navigation satellites so the Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, doesn’t need to rely on the U.S.-run GPS or a rival Russian system.

Last year, China graduated from “me too” missions copying Soviet and American ventures to scoring its own firsts when it became the first nation to land a probe on the moon’s little-explored far side.

That probe, the Chang’e 4, and its robot rover still are functioning, transmitting to Earth via an orbiter that passes over the moon’s far side. China’s first moon lander, the Chang’e 3, still is transmitting.

China’s earliest crewed spacecraft, the Shenzhou capsules, were based on Russian technology.

China is in a growing space rivalry with Asian neighbors Japan and India, which it sees as strategic competitors. Both have sent their own probes to Mars.

While Chang’e 5 gathers moon rocks, Japan’s space agency just pulled off the even more challenging feat of obtaining samples from an asteroid, Ryugu. The Hayabusa2 mission is due to deliver those to Earth on Saturday.

As its confidence grows, Beijing’s space goals have multiplied.

It has joined the race to explore Mars, and its Tianwen-1 probe, launched in July carrying a robot rover to search for signs of water, is due to complete its 470-million kilometer (292-million mile) journey in February.

Plans call for a permanent crewed space station as early as 2022.

China is excluded from the International Space Station due to U.S. opposition to including Chinese military officers in a venture that otherwise is operated by civilian space agencies.

Plans also call for an international lunar research base at some point, the deputy director of the Chinese agency’s lunar exploration center, Pei Zhaoyu, told reporters last week.