Will China lead the way in future space exploration and discovery?

A report on the incredible achievement by CNSA of landing a probe at the far side of the moon

By Sean O'Brien

On the 3rd of January, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) achieved the first ever probe landing on the far side of the moon. This achievement has been widely regarded as incredible progress in lunar space exploration, putting China on the map of leading nations in space exploration. Will this follow many other groundbreaking achievements by the CNSA?

Landing a probe on the far side of the moon was no easy task. Firstly, Chinese scientists needed to figure out how they were going to communicate with the space probe Chang’e 4. Direct satellite communication was not possible by virtue of satellite signals are unable to go through the moon. To overcome this challenge, CNSA sent a relay satellite Queqiao into space to be positioned beyond the moon so that satellite signal would first be sent to Queqiao which would then have direct communication with Chang’e 4.

The next challenge was the most significant. Previously, major space players the United States and the former Soviet Union attempted to a probe to the far side of the moon but failed. A major difficulty is the actual landing due to the rough terrain on the far side of the moon. The Chinese developed a technology for Chang’e 4 that allowed the probe to direct its own landing using sophisticated cameras and laser measurements so that the probe would identify the optimal landing area which required a vertical landing by Chang’e 4. The probe decided the best place to land would be on the Von Karman Crater in the South Pole Aitken Basin. The autonomous landing technology made this historic landing possible as the probe landing could not have been operated from earth. Once Chang’e 4 had successfully landed, a rover equipped with sophisticated technology analytical tools, such as a panoramic camera and an imaging spectrometer for lunar discovery, was dispatched from the probe.

In recent years, there has been a re-focus on lunar space exploration, one of these reasons is because of the potential value of the resources that could be extracted from the moon. This includes rare earth elements and Helium-3 which according to the European Space Agency (ESA) could be the answer to the world’s energy crisis as they believe it could be used as a non-radioactive fuel for a nuclear fusion reactor.

Today, the United States is still considered the global leader of space exploration and discovery. NASA recently captured images of an ‘object’ a billion miles further than Pluto in the Kuiper Belt. However, the task of putting the first person of Mars has yet to be achieved by any nation. With groundbreaking progress observed by this Chinese lunar mission, China will have their sights set on the Red Planet along with aspirations to carry out a mission to Jupiter as hinted by Hou Xiyun, a professor from Nanjing University.

Throughout the last decade China has made it clear that space exploration has been a part of the country’s strategy to further its role as a global power. President Xi Jinping has said that “the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger”. Only time will tell if China is able to go further than it was once imagined and accomplish its space dream.

From Issue 17

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