Can China's plans for space exploration NASA now challenge?

Image of the Von Karman crater of the moon

Featured image: The Chang & # 39; e-4 will land on the unexplored side of the moon in December 2018. Credit: CNSA / CAS

In December of this year, CNSA, the Chinese space agency, will try to achieve something that no other space agency has tried: a probe across the moon. It is the latest salvo in a slow but certain attempt by China to become a big space force, including plans for a space station in orbit around the earth, more powerful missiles, a moon base and even a mission to Mars.

Do not you think that China is already a big space power? For the time being it had only sporadic success, but China could well be on track to become just as important as NASA.

The Chang & e-4 mission

CNSA will try to land its Chang & # 39; e-4 on the other side of the moon, but we are not talking about the dark side of the moon – there is no place like that. The moon is neatly trapped on earth, so it only runs once in its 29-day job. That means that we see only one side of the moon, but the other is also illuminated by the sun. On the other hand, however, never landed. A completely robotic mission, Chang & # 39; e-4 will try to land in the Von Karman Crater of the Moon, an impact crater in the southern hemisphere across the moon.

Chang & e-4 will land in the Von Karman crater. Credit: NASA / LROC

(Image: © NASA / LROC)

"It is a daring plan," says Brian Harvey, space expert and author of China in Space: The Great Leap Forward. "If it succeeds, and I would put the chance at 50-50, then China has done something spectacularly different from the other space powers." There is a lot of risk involved. "

The Chang & e-4 mission has actually started. A problem with the proposed landing is that it is impossible to send radio signals directly to the earth from the other side of the moon, so in May of this year the CNSA launched a satellite that was successfully brought into orbit around the moon where he has a line of sight to the earth, so that it can transmit radio signals to and from the lander. It also streams live on TV around the world live.

The Chang & e-5 mission

China, however, has much larger plans. Next year, it plans to fly a sample return & # 39; mission to the moon, using the same system used by NASA during its Apollo mission to bring moon rocks to Earth. "The lunar module will fly up to the lunar orbit and link with the command module and return to earth," says Harvey. "That means it can bring back a bigger monster and it can also land anywhere on the moon that it wishes."

Image of Chang & # 39; e-4 Lunar Rover

Chang & # 39; e-4 will be launched in December 2018. Credit: CNSA / CAS

(Image: © CNSA / CAS)

The main target is Mons Rümker in the far northwest of the moon. If successful, China will have its own moonstone and will be the third country that will be after the US and Russia.

The long March 9 rocket from China

Much will depend on the Chinese missile program. A failure with its long March 5 rocket sparked an explosion in July 2017, but China has plans for a much more awesome, capable, super-heavy lifttraket called Long March 9 (LM9). Planned to fly in 2028, LM9 will become a beast.

"The load that the LM9 can bring to the moon is about 50 metric tons," says Harvey. "The Saturn V was 40 metric tons, so we are looking at something that is slightly larger." Saturn V was used by NASA in the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s.

Image showing a section of the moon

The Chang & e-5 mission will try to bring back stones from the moon. Credit: NASA

(Image: © Credit: NASA)

China's plans for a lunar base and Mars

There are also plans to place astronauts on the lunar surface. "The first manned lunar landing is intended for 2030, but it is not yet an approved government project," says Harvey, adding that it is important to distinguish between what Chinese scientists would like – a moon landing in 2030, a lunar base in 2040 and a Mars landing in 2050 – and what has been approved by the Chinese government.

"The first Chinese manned lunar expedition may not last very long – perhaps just a few days or a week – but China does not intend to go beyond doing Apollo-like expeditions of three or four days," says Harvey. He thinks they will soon move on to building a settlement on the lunar surface, possibly with the help of a combination of rigid, inflatable and 3D-constructed modules for habitation, laboratory and support, and tunnels between the two. Initial plans presented in 2017 provide space for between three and six astronauts.

The next space station in China

The first space station in China, Tiangong-1, burned into Earth's atmosphere in April 2018, but it has plans to launch another one. Harvey explains: "The first module of its manned space station, the Tianhe, will start next year, with two other scientific modules to follow, and a pattern of manned launches will begin, with China sending three astronauts every six months. "

Image of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti during training in China

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti in a pressure suit during training in China. Credit: ESA-Stephane Corvaja, 2017

(Image: © ESA-Stephane Corvaja, 2017)

The astronauts in China are forbidden by the US to visit the ISS. However, there is a reasonable chance that the Chinese space station will effectively use the & # 39; new & # 39; ISS. "The ISS may not be present after 2024 and the Chinese space station will continue to fly until well into the 2030s," says Harvey.

After all, Tianhe is not a top secret, only in China; European astronauts Samantha Cristoforetti and Matthias Maurer have already trained in China for a flight there. However, it is foolish to compare Tianhe with the ISS; it will be much more like MIR, the rudimentary Russian space station of the eighties and nineties.

Is China's space travel program mainly military?

The Chinese space program is often painted by the media in the US as mainly military in nature. "I see no proof of that," says Harvey, who insists that the problem with the American-Chinese relationship is that Congress forbids any cooperation between them. "Most national space programs have a military element, but that is by far the largest in the US, and generally small in Russia and China."

Harvey estimates that military elements account for about 15-20% of the Chinese space program, which is not huge and totals $ 4.9 billion compared to US $ 35.9 billion, $ 5.7 billion from the European Space Agency (ESA), $ 3.2 dollars from Russia. billion dollars, Japan & # 39; s $ 3 billion and India & # 39; s $ 1 billion, according to Euroconsult.

Will CNSA NASA or Russia's space agency ROSCOSMOS ever challenge for domination in space technology? Harvey calls the space program of China & # 39; extremely economical & # 39; and emphasizes that it only concentrates on certain areas. "It all goes at a fairly slow pace, but do not be fooled by that", he warns. "Eventually it will overtake many other countries."

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