This is more than just a land­ing

Sunday Tribune - - MOON LANDING - RICK NOACK

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. “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 US 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 the en­deav­our to 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.

Although no­body could be cer­tain that the mis­sion would suc­ceed, the broader am­bi­tions were clear from the be­gin­ning. Chi­nese of­fi­cials did not pub­lish a date for the land­ing in ad­vance and kept de­tails of the mis­sion in se­cret, but the mis­sion was long planned. In fact, it was decades in the mak­ing.

“It’s been a long-term vi­sion of the Chi­nese,” Duffy said. 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 US and Rus­sia.

But as China con­tin­ued to ex­pand its op­er­a­tions, en­thu­si­asm for space ex­plo­rations was weak­en­ing in the two coun­tries with the most suc­cess­ful pro­grammes. 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 it made global head­lines for its space en­deav­ours, China launched early prepara­tory mis­sions as early as 2007 to ex­am­ine the sur­face on the far side of the moon and later to iden­tify pos­si­ble land­ing sites.

In some ways, the Chi­nese pro­gramme al­ready matches US ca­pa­bil­i­ties, even though it still has far less fund­ing. Last year, China sched­uled more than 40 space mis­sion launches, more than twice the num­ber of those in 2017. Although the rapid Chi­nese progress may be sur­pris­ing given its pro­gramme’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,” Duffy said.

Moon mis­sions ap­pear to be es­pe­cially valu­able to Beijing, and the coun­try has made progress on that front far more quickly than in other, less pres­ti­gious realms.

In a White Pa­per 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 Mars land­ing that’s sched­uled for 2020. Those mis­sions, Beijing has 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 as­serted in a re­port last Au­gust that China’s space pro­gramme was “cen­tral to modern war­fare”.

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