China, despite its late entry into the realm of space exploration, has recently unveiled an ambitious vision that could potentially make it the first nation to establish a lunar base on the moon.
With aspirations of putting Chinese astronauts on the moon’s surface within the next seven years, Beijing may even outpace the United States in creating a permanent lunar outpost.
NASA has disclosed plans for its own Artemis Base Camp, aiming for establishment in the 2030s. This timeline sets up the tantalizing prospect of an intense 21st-century space race between the two countries. Wu Weiren, the physicist leading China’s moon mission, shared with state media that Beijing’s goal is to build a lunar research station before the end of the decade.
“By 2030, the footprints of the Chinese people will be left on the moon,” said Weiren. “There’s no question about it.”
This development follows China’s announcement two years ago of a partnership with Russia to create a joint lunar base by 2035. The latest declaration suggests that the two nations have expedited their plans in an effort to surpass the US-led Western contingent, which includes the space agencies of Canada, Europe, and Japan.
Leaked documents from last year indicated that NASA aimed to begin its moon base construction in 2034. However, the US space agency has also expressed aspirations to have a permanent lunar outpost by the end of the decade.
Just last week, officials hinted that work on this project could commence as early as the Artemis VII mission, which could launch between 2029 and 2030, contingent on the success of earlier milestones in the program.
Although China is a relative newcomer in the field of space exploration, the country has achieved several noteworthy accomplishments over the past decade. The uncrewed Chang’e 1 mission launched in 2007 to orbit the moon, followed by a successful unmanned landing in 2013.
In 2019, China made history as the first country to land on the far side of the moon. At the end of 2020, the Chang’e-5 probe successfully returned with rock and lunar soil samples, further showcasing China’s growing prowess in space.
In contrast to China’s ambitious lunar plans, Russia appears to be taking a different path in the realm of space exploration. Although once a superpower alongside the United States, Russia has transitioned from being a space pioneer to playing a somewhat minor role, particularly after losing its monopoly on ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station due to the emergence of Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Nevertheless, Moscow still possesses substantial expertise and is evidently regarded by China as an ideal partner for its moon base endeavors. In 2021, Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, announced that it had signed an agreement with China’s National Space Administration to develop research facilities on the moon’s surface. The two countries committed to collaborate in the planning, design, development, and operation of the research station.
While the initial goal was to build the lunar outpost by 2035, it seems that Beijing and Moscow are now focused on competing with NASA in the race to establish themselves as the leading global force in space exploration.
According to the official timetable, Beijing plans to launch the Chang’e 7 mission in 2026 for a “comprehensive survey task” to search for water at the moon’s south pole. Following this, the Chang’e 8 mission, scheduled for 2028, would aid in constructing an international lunar station that would be available for use by other nations, as explained by Wu Weiren to China Central Television.
He further elaborated on the primary objectives of the Chang’e 8 mission, stating that “its primary task would be to survey resources on the moon and experiment with the reutilization of the resources.”
Wu also highlighted potential research questions, such as the feasibility of constructing buildings on the moon, the viability of using bricks, and the methods of communication that would be employed.
NASA has recently announced the selection of four astronauts for its first moon crew in half a century, as the United States and China-Russia vie to establish lunar outposts. The plan for the Artemis II mission is to fly around the moon next year, with a lunar landing targeted for 2025. This landing, part of the Artemis III mission, would witness the first woman and the first person of color setting foot on the moon. However, many believe that this timeline might experience some delays.
According to the US space agency, the initial missions to begin constructing a base on the moon will be Artemis VII, VIII, and IX, which are likely to coincide with the Chang’e 8 mission. Both the American and China-Russia endeavors are focusing on exploring the lunar south pole for their outposts, as it is known to contain significant amounts of water ice that could be utilized for future colonies.
NASA initially revealed its plans for a single Artemis Base Camp at the lunar south pole back in 2020. Nevertheless, officials hinted last week that the agency might collaborate with international partners, such as the European Space Agency, to expand this into a series of moon bases. One advantage of this approach would be the added redundancy for missions that might face catastrophic emergencies on the moon.
Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, explained during a press briefing that working with multiple sites would also allow the Artemis program to maximize its scientific potential. “So we can maybe have two or three sites to go to that help our science diversity because the reason we’re doing Artemis in the first place is for science,” Free said. “We’re probably looking at the later missions, like [Artemis] 7, 8, and 9, where we’re starting to look at adding permanent habitation on the surface.”
The United States first sent a man to the moon in 1969 and followed with 11 more lunar landings until 1972. However, there have been no manned missions to the moon since then. Last year, NASA launched the Artemis program as a 21st-century successor to the highly successful Apollo missions. The uncrewed Artemis I mission involved sending NASA’s Orion spacecraft into orbit on a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for a 25-day round trip to the moon and back.
The history of the Chinese space program can be traced back to the late 1950s when the country started developing its missile and rocket technologies. Over the years, the program has evolved and expanded, achieving significant milestones and becoming a major player in global space exploration.
China’s space program began with the founding of the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of National Defense in 1956, which was responsible for missile and rocket development. In 1958, the Chinese Academy of Sciences established a research program for satellite development. With the help of Soviet Union experts, China developed its first ballistic missiles and laid the groundwork for its space program.
On April 24, 1970, China successfully launched its first satellite, Dongfanghong-1 (The East is Red-1), becoming the fifth nation to send a satellite into space. The satellite transmitted the Chinese patriotic song “The East is Red” while orbiting the Earth.
China initiated Project 921 in 1992, which aimed to develop a manned spacecraft. After several years of development and testing, the Shenzhou (meaning “Divine Vessel”) spacecraft series was born. The first unmanned Shenzhou mission, Shenzhou 1, was launched in 1999.
China became the third country to send humans into space with the successful launch of Shenzhou 5 on October 15, 2003, carrying astronaut Yang Liwei. This achievement marked a significant milestone in China’s space program.
China’s lunar exploration program, Chang’e, named after the mythical Chinese Moon goddess, began with the launch of the Chang’e 1 lunar orbiter in 2007. In 2013, Chang’e 3 successfully soft-landed on the moon, deploying the Yutu rover. China became the first nation to land on the far side of the moon with the Chang’e 4 mission in 2019. In 2020, the Chang’e 5 mission successfully collected and returned lunar samples to Earth.
China launched its first Mars mission, Tianwen-1, in July 2020. The mission includes an orbiter, lander, and rover, and aims to study Mars’ geology, atmosphere, and search for signs of water. In May 2021, the mission successfully landed the Zhurong rover on Mars, making China the second country to deploy a rover on the Martian surface.
The Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) program aims to establish a modular space station. Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011 as a prototype, followed by Tiangong-2 in 2016. The core module of the new Tiangong space station, Tianhe, was launched in April 2021, with plans to complete construction by 2022.
The Chinese space program continues to evolve, with ambitious plans for future lunar missions, manned space exploration, and international collaboration.
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