Lunar mission pushes China towards Apollo-11 Moment

china-lunarThe “complete success” of the Chang’e-3 lunar probe mission, announced by China National Space Agency (CNSA) on December 15, marks the emerging space power’s movement towards its own Apollo-11 moment. On Sunday midnight, China’s first lunar rover Yutu — named after the white pet rabbit of Chinese lunar goddess Change’e — placed its five star flag on the moon for the very first time. Part of China’s lunar programme’s second phase, this is the first successful effort of any form of moon landing by an Asian country. Globally as well, China is only the third country after the Soviet Union and the US to master smooth separation of a lunar rover from the lander. In any case, compared to the earlier moon missions, this mission is a huge leap for the simple reason that it has followed decades of scientific development in the field of IT.

china-lunar1Chang’e-3 mission also achieved soft landing – a feat last attained for the only time in 1976 by former Soviet Russia’s Luna-24 mission – thus making China only the second country to put an unmanned rover on the Moon. NASA has tested autonomous hazard avoidance capability on the Earth, but has not yet flown it on the moon. The probe’s soft-landing was deemed the most difficult task during the mission.

Compared with its previous counterpart Chang’e-2 launched in October 2010, the Chang’e-3 is 1,000 kg heavier and its orbit injection is almost three times more accurate. Over the next three month — the expected lifespan of the rover — it will provide China the accurate first hand analysis of lunar surface and mineral and energy resources there.

The other firsts to its credit includes it being the first time any country placed a telescope on what happens to be our closest celestial neighbour. Building over this expertise, China intends to realise with Chang’e-5 in 2017, the landing of a lunar probe and returning it on earth with lunar rock and soil samples. In between, by 2015, the CNSA plans a reentry tests with another experimental lander-rover craft Chang’e-4.

The CNSA is simultaneously working on man mission as well. This June China’s Shenzhou-10 spacecraft successfully conducted an automatic docking with the Tiangong-1 orbital capsule. It was China’s fifth manned mission on the orbital capsule since its launch in September 2011. The second phase of the Tiangong (meaning “Heavenly Palace”) orbital series is also scheduled in 2015. Before this decade ends, China wants a permanent space station of its own orbiting earth.

The benefits of China’s military-backed space programme are mostly civilian and inspirational.  In some ways, it’s part of the China Dream. In early November following the displaying of a model of the lunar rover, Xinhua, China’s state-controlled news agency, conducted an online poll to select the rover’s name. The name it got was “Seeking Dream” with more than 560,000 votes. “We will strive for our space dream as part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation,” said Zhang Zhenzhong, the director of the Chang’e-3 launch center in Xichang.

The official tone, however, remains subdued. China Daily wrote in its editorial that the painstaking efforts of the mission scientists and technicians would inspire their counterparts in other field. It added that though such missions cost large sums of money, the application of the technological expertise achieved – as in the case of robots, “autonomous” navigation system, and buffering materials – could be used in producing consumer products and promote China’s manufacturing industry.

Earlier, there was a great deal of scepticism that China’s well-funded space programme, officially given a go-ahead for lunar mission only in 2004, could achieve major breakthroughs in less than a decade. Critics point out that China’s track record, particularly the anti-satellite tests it carried out, shows that its objectives could be far sinister than the rhetoric of peaceful rise China keep on harping. If the Pakistani website report on December 06, 2013 is to be believed, China is planning to use the Moon as a missile base. While such a possibility is rather a distant one, having the capability itself changes the entire strategic dynamics for friends and foes alike.

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