China's long-term goal has been to match US capabilities in space.
When China announced on Thursday that it had successfully landed on the far side of the moon, it wasn't just a scientific breakthrough. To Beijing, its expanding space mission also carries an increasingly powerful symbolic message.
"This is more than just a landing," said Alan Duffy, a lead scientist with the Royal Institution of Australia focusing on space exploration. "Today's announcement was a clear statement about the level of maturity that China's technology has now reached. Beijing's longer-term goal to match U.S. capabilities could now become reality within two decades, and on the moon within perhaps only one decade."
From a scientific standpoint, Thursday's announcement surprised some who had expected that the endeavor could easily fail. Landing a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, which never faces Earth, hasn't been done before, because its location makes direct radio signal communication impossible. But Chinese researchers were able to overcome this challenge by launching a relay satellite to communicate with the Chang'e 4 spacecraft and its rover.
While nobody could be certain that the mission would succeed, the broader ambitions were clear from the beginning. Even though Chinese officials did not publish a date for the landing in advance and kept details of the mission in secret, the mission was long planned. In fact, it was decades in the making.
"It's been a long term vision of the Chinese," said Australian researcher Duffy. In the early 2000s, few would have guessed that China would become such a major player in space so quickly, given that it had long shown little or no interest in gaining a foothold. When Beijing finally sent its first astronauts into orbit in 2003, Western observers dismissed the news as a probably pointless effort to play catch-up with the United States and Russia.
Details of China's long-planned moon mission were kept secret.
But as China quietly continued to expand its operations, enthusiasm for space explorations was weakening in the two countries with the most successful programs. Adjusted to inflation, NASA's budget has declined in some years, while Russia became busy financing President Vladimir Putin's military operations abroad.
In China, the opposite was happening. Long before they made global headlines for their top-notch space endeavors, the Chinese launched early preparatory missions as early as in 2007, to examine the surface on the far side of the moon and later to identify possible landing sites.
In some ways, the Chinese program already matches U.S. capabilities today, even though it still has far less funding. Last year, China scheduled over 40 space mission launches, more than twice the number of 2017. While the rapid Chinese progress may be surprising given its program's financial shortcomings, researchers say that the country deliberately focuses on prestige projects that will speed up its recognition as a top space power.
"China makes very visible advances, but they don't operate scientific missions in such depth as NASA does, for instance," said researcher Duffy. Moon missions appear to be especially valuable to Beijing, and the country has made progress on that front far quicker than in other, less prestigious realms.
In its own white paper that was published in December 2016, China made some of its most important missions public on its own, including the now-successful moon landing, several planet fly-bys and a planned Mars landing that's scheduled for 2020. Those missions, Beijing has always maintained, all serve peaceful purposes.
"The white paper sets out our vision of China as a space power, independently researching, innovating, discovering and training specialist personnel," read a news release accompanying the 2016 white paper.
But those assurances failed to convince the Pentagon, which maintained in a report last August that China's space program was "central to modern warfare." While NASA works closely with the Russians, U.S. lawmakers have banned similar projects with the Chinese space agency over espionage fears.
Last August, Vice President Mike Pence announced plans to create a "Space Force" military command by 2020 and specifically cited an incident involving a Chinese satellite as a key reason to expand efforts in space. As it was seeking to leave a mark about a decade ago, China opted to blow up one of its own weather satellites in a 2007 military test in the low Earth orbit. The destruction created so many particles that its remnants still account for about 25 percent of today's space debris, posing growing risks to satellites and space missions of all nations.
Thursday's announcement might be threatening U.S. leadership in space – but not in the same way as in 2007.
"It's more about prestige," said Duffy.
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