Hours after settling on the surface of the moon, the Chinese lander lowered a ramp and the Jade Rabbit rover trundled away on a three-month mission to explore the Bay of Rainbows, a lava field regarded as one of the most beautiful features on Earth’s natural satellite.
The touchdown earlier this month marked the first soft-landing on the moon in more than three decades, and the first excursion of a lunar rover in more than four. The feat was captured by an onboard camera and swiftly broadcast by Chinese state media. The message was clear: China means business in space.
The moon landing is only the latest success for an ambitious space program that sees a Chinese space station in orbit in 2020 and a lunar base for astronauts that paves the way for crewed missions to Mars and beyond. Earlier this year, in its fifth crewed space mission, three Chinese taikonauts docked with a prototype space lab and spent two weeks in orbit.
The rapid rise of China as a spacefaring nation does not amount to a new space race, but countries across Asia, and established old hands such as the US and Russia, are watching their activities closely. Experts in the space community say the US could lose its leadership to China by backing missions other countries are not equipped to join. Meanwhile, regional competition between China and India could fuel the militarization of space, with the unchecked development of anti-satellite weapons.
“Asia’s recent rise in space capability, and especially China’s military space activities, poses a challenge to the established space powers,” said James Clay Moltz, professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School in California, and author of Asia’s Space Race. “They are not racing with China, but they are certainly watching in their rearview mirror.”
Space is a game that everyone wants to play. More than 25 countries have their own astronauts and twice as many operate satellites. The appeal is that the benefits are many. Space technology means better communications and navigation systems; the ability to watch yours and other countries, and, of course, scientific missions. The work attracts scientists and engineers and the technologies they develop make money.
Then there is human spaceflight. Lofting people into space is seen as folly and a waste of money by some academics, including Martin Rees, the UK’s astronomer royal, but the missions bring prestige, foster national pride, and again drive people into money-making technological careers. But more than anything, human missions are symbolic. They send a signal about a nation’s capabilities.
“What is interesting about Jade Rabbit is not so much the soft landing on the moon, but what it all implies. If you can land on the moon where you intended to land, that means in five years you are going to see far more accurate nuclear missiles. If you can rendezvous in orbit, that means a greater anti-satellite capability. Countries look at space as a measure of power, and bound up in that is prestige,” said John Sheldon, founder of the space and cyberspace consultancy Torridon Group, and a former professor at the US air force’s school of advanced air and space studies in Alabama.
But for all the reasons to fling people into space, none has been greater than politics. Even after the Apollo mission, driven by US-Soviet rivalry in the 1960s, space was the place to make statements. When the US space station program was put together in the 1980s, it was intended as an anti-Soviet alliance of western nations that brought Japan into the fold in a major way for the first time. When the Soviet Union fell, Russia was embraced as a new partner on the station.