Is China Leading the Exploration of Space?

The Chinese space program has accomplished two firsts in space already in 2019 — landing the first spacecraft on the far side of the Moon, and growing plants on the lunar surface. Now, they intend to land a spacecraft on Mars by the year 2020 — a feat that has, so far, only been accomplished by scientists from the United States.

The Chang’e-4 spacecraft touched down on the far side of the Moon on January 3rd. Previously, that side of the lunar surface was only seen by spacecraft passing overhead. After touchdown, the Chang’e-4 released the Yutu-2 rover to explore the alien terrain, providing the first pictures ever taken from the surface of the far side of the Moon. China has also accomplished several other milestones recently, leading some observers to question whether that nation has now taken the lead in the exploration of space.

“They have accomplished many things, such as the first quantum communication satellites. They have the largest radio telescope on earth of the spherical reflector type, very similar to the one at Arecibo (Observatory) in Puerto Rico,” Bruno Henriquez, a geophysicist and former researcher at Cuba’s Institute of Geophysics and Astronomy, said.

The Chang’e-4 lander on the surface of the Moon, photographed by the Yutu-2 rover. Image: CNSA.

China will launch a mission to the Moon, later in 2019, returning samples from the lunar surface to Earth. They also recently announced plans to be the first nation to build a base on the Moon, utilizing 3D printing technology. This scientific research center would be built near the south pole of the Moon, which can experience up to 180 days a year of sunlight. Water ice can be found there, on the floors of eternally dark craters.

The success of Chang’e-4 has inspired the China National Space Administration (CNSA) to declare their intention to undertake three further missions to our planetary companion. In order to bring Chinese space travelers — taikonauts — to the Moon, and for a robotic sample mission to Mars, the CNSA is designing a new heavy-lift rocket. That vehicle, expected to weigh 4,000 metric tons (4,400 tons), will have a diameter of 10 meters (33 feet). Designers are hoping to complete design and construction of that delivery system by the year 2030.

The first true rockets were developed by the Chinese in the year 1232. During the battle of Kai-Keng, Chinese soldiers attached bamboo tubes filled with gunpowder to repel Mongol invaders with “arrows of burning fire.”

“It is not clear how effective these arrows of flying fire were as weapons of destruction, but their psychological effects on the Mongols must have been formidable,” NASA explains.

Watch the YUTU-2 rover begin its journey, exploring the far side of the Moon. Credit: CNSA/CLEP

The Russian space program has been hampered by delays and funding issues since the end of the Cold War, and has largely been relegated to sending cosmonauts to the International Space Station. The United States has recently accomplished some historic missions using robotic craft — including encounters with the asteroid Bennu, and the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft — Ultima Thule. However, no US astronaut has been beyond low-Earth orbit since 1972.

China may soon — or already be — the world’s leader in space exploration.

Alexandria Science

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The Cosmic Companion

Written by

James Maynard is the author of two books, and thousands of articles about space and science. E-mail:

Alexandria Science

The e-magazine of science, from astronomy to zoology