Beyond the Far Side

China’s goal of achieving development from a lunar orbiter to a moon outpost in three decades is remarkably fast.
by Vasudevan Mukunth
An image of the asteroid Toutatis taken by the Chang’e-2 probe during its flyby in 2012. courtesy of Shenzhou Media

China has always advocated for the peaceful use of outer space. It adopted its current Constitution in 1982 and ratified the UN Outer Space Treaty (OST) in 1983. And since 1985, it has been working together with the United States and Britain, among other countries, to develop space technologies.

Today, it is an elite spacefaring nation with an operational heavy-lift launch vehicle, a space station and crewed spaceflight programs, a functional collaboration with a dozen world-class universities around the country and a flourishing private space sector. China also has a space science division but it isn’t quite as expansive or full-fledged as its space technologies counterpart.

When the country’s Chang’e-4 mission deployed a rover on the far side of the moon on January 3, 2019, observers were surprised. The Chinese space agency aims to build an “outpost” on the moon’s South Pole. As futuristic as that sounds, Chang’e-4’s success was a reminder that China might just achieve that goal by the 2030s, with the complicated mission profile attesting to the country’s capabilities.

Since the first Chang’e mission in 2007, China has sent two orbiters, two landers and two rovers and is expected to undertake two sample-return missions by 2021. Three decades from orbiter to outpost is remarkably fast.

At the same time, China’s cislunar and lunar missions can’t be written off entirely as pilots to greater non-lunar endeavors. The moon is not simply a springboard. Although crewed lunar missions ceased to be of interest in the 1990s, the natural satellite has been reborn as a “superpower destination.”

Last November, NASA announced the selection of nine companies to “deliver services to the lunar surface,” starting as soon as 2019. Although the organization’s chief called it the first step to “feed forward to Mars,” it still involves long-term scientific explorations of the celestial body itself.

India is another country interested in the moon, and its trajectory to the celestial body and beyond is very similar to China’s. In fact, Chandrayaan-2 will land on the moon at a spot close to where Chang’e-4 did, exploring a similar region with similar instruments. Both countries have also announced a similar suite of interplanetary missions and have built or are building capabilities that will allow them to launch both very heavy and very light satellites, send humans to space and ultimately to the moon, and reach Mars in the not-so-distant future.

In fact, it is possible that India is paying more attention to space diplomacy only because China. India has accelerated its human space flight program after many years of dismissing its value largely due to the possibility of a Chinese space station in low-Earth orbit by 2024.

However, one area holds hope for cooperation because more than half of all countries that have independently developed spaceflight are from Asia and at least seven other countries around the world are keen on returning to the moon. If India, China and Japan join hands, they can effectively lead a conglomerate of 15 nations that could set the terms of the world’s return to the moon.

Since NASA shut down its Space Shuttle program in the 1990s, it hasn’t had the ability to launch astronauts to space, let alone to the moon. It has navigated the situation of using Russian rockets to access the International Space Station. In fact, its choices passively set up a gatekeeping situation.

The OST is still in effect but has become dated. It doesn’t provide clear answers on who can own off-world resources and how their trade should be managed. In this framework, China has an opportunity to be the country that paves a road for India and Japan to participate.

This is to be expected. Space exploration has a long way to go until it is completely democratic, thanks mostly to the extreme costs and technological maturity it demands. Until then, China—as much as India, the United States or Russia—will seek to extend its diplomacy where its rovers go and build spatio-economic leverage in the new world order. 

The author is the science editor of The Wire, a leading online news publication in India.