China made history this month by successfully landing an unmanned spacecraft on the lunar surface. It was a feat previously accomplished only by the United States and the former Soviet Union.
The Chang’e 3 lunar probe, which touched down Dec. 14, is the culmination of four decades of planning by the world’s second-largest economic power. China has made no secret of its desire to become a major player in space exploration, where the United States and Russia are the undisputed leaders while India and the European Space Agency make major strides.
Of the three powers that have soft-landed spacecraft on the moon, only the United States can boast of manned missions, the last of which occurred in the early 1970s. Russia landed an unmanned exploratory craft on the moon in 1976. China won’t attempt a manned landing until sometime in the 2020s. By then, the U.S. hopes to have landed astronauts on a nearby asteroid and circled Mars with a manned flight.
Although the Chinese moon rover Jade Rabbit is in “sleep mode” for two weeks because of the low temperatures at its landing site, the Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows), it will survey the area for three months after it wakes up. Meanwhile, the lander will collect data around the site for a year. The mission is expected to yield a trove of new information that will benefit space programs around the world.
The U.S. and China don’t typically work together on space exploration because of U.S. laws that limit cooperation, but China’s lunar success will likely spur an American re-engagement with space. This is why the success of the Chinese on the moon is good not only for China but also for the United States.