Flights of fancy or reality?

Few people think of commercial development beyond earth, or the two Poles, but China is exploring the potential in space with its lunar program

February 23, 2017 6:00 AM (UTC+8)
Blink and you will miss it. The full moon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Blink and you will miss it. The full moon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When one thinks of development few would even consider anything beyond earth, or the extremes of the North and South Poles. But just like the Arctic, the moon is open to anyone as far as future commercial development is concerned. And China thinks the same.

The central government plans to reach the moon quickly to start exploiting whatever resources it identifies and locates there. Under the banner of the China Lunar Exploration Project or CLEP, Beijing intends to accomplish its lunar objectives much sooner than many might think possible.

China’s 2016 white paper on space made this important point about the status and importance of the CLEP. While the white paper depicts China’s timetable for its upcoming lunar activities in a soft and almost casual manner, there is a growing sense of urgency and indeed, a possible surge is something the Chinese leadership is ready to activate.

“China will continue its lunar exploration project, and strive to attain the automated extraterrestrial sampling and returning technology by space explorers. We plan to fulfill the three strategic steps of ‘orbiting, landing and returning’ for the lunar exploration project by launching the Chang’e-5 lunar probe by the end of 2017 and realizing regional soft landing, sampling and return,” the white paper said.

“We will launch the Chang’e-4 lunar probe around 2018 to achieve mankind’s first soft landing on the far side of the moon … Through the lunar exploration project, topographic and geological surveys will be implemented and laboratory research conducted on lunar samples; geological survey and research as well as low-frequency radio astronomy observation and research will be carried out targeting the landing area on the far side of the moon for a better understanding of the formation and evolution of the moon.”

China wants to make this bold move in space for the sake of geopolitics and national prestige. Yes, China will continue to work on its other projects in space as expected. It will seek to transform its Beidou satellite navigation system from a regional to a global GPS constellation, while launching more earth observation, communications and military satellites. Expanding its new space station is a priority, too.

However, establishing China’s presence on the moon is perhaps the top priority. This means that China must apply itself in a manner that elevates it to a new level when it comes to lunar exploration. China is intent upon exercising its space muscle to aggressively establish lunar outposts before any other nation or joint cooperative effort establishes a foothold on the moon including US, Russian, Japanese and European missions as well as any private sector American-led multinational lunar ventures.

The Chang-e 3 lander. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Chang-e 3 lander. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 2016, China upgraded its launch infrastructure, while concentrating on its impressive lineup of new and improved vehicles. China either tied the US in terms of its total number of 22 launches in 2016 or it came quite close with 21 – it just depends on whom you got your information from. But it is a bit premature to proclaim that China is positioning itself to outlaunch everyone else year by year over the coming decade.

Enter Elon Musk. With the successful launch of his company’s – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) – Falcon 9 rocket on February 19, SpaceX is about to turn up the heat on China in particular. In fact, SpaceX has openly declared that in 2017 alone, if everything goes according to plan, it will undertake upwards of 22 to 24 launches, which is more than China successfully completed in 2016.

In addition, a Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to fly to the moon in 2018. So if China thinks it can execute a jump-start to the moon all by itself, it may be in for a surprise.

China wants to make this bold move in space for the sake of geopolitics and national prestige

The uncertainty and unpredictability of US President Donald Trump only adds to China’s sense of urgency. President Trump is in favor of forging public-private partnerships in space. In addition, he is mindful that influential Washington insider Newt Gingrich has presented a compelling argument for a return to the moon by Nasa, not only as a necessary stepping stone to Mars, but as a matter of common sense, too. The American fixation on Mars is not going away, but how to best get there is a work in progress. Gingrich’s and others’ strong desire to see an American astronaut standing once again on the moon fits neatly into a broader lunar agenda favored by many American space experts who want to keep the moon in play for a variety of reasons.

For now, President Trump is not acting as if he accepts this argument for a US lunar base, but a return to the moon is not unrealistic here. As a significant short-term goal in need of a strong promoter, it is a plan that President Trump could easily embrace it in an instant.

That said, Musk is likely to drive President Trump’s decision-making when it comes to the moon, not the other way round. Musk is all about getting to Mars, and he does not appear eager to waste a lot of time and energy on the moon.

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A 360-degree image of the Chang-e 3 lander’s view of the moon in 2013. Photo: Xinhua

On the other hand, China is not aggressively pursuing a comprehensive Mars program, and certainly not on any fast track either. While the US is focused on a manned flight to Mars despite the enormous costs and the inherent high degree of risk associated with this undertaking, China is decidedly unconcerned – not disinterested – and resigned to taking a back seat at least for now.

However, Musk is a product of the US private sector, a culture far different from the culture one encounters in the Chinese space program. Agility and a willingness to rewrite a game plan based on the rapid need to regroup is something that Musk might appreciate. Thus Musk might become a champion of the US return to the moon if it furthers his cause, ie, getting to Mars. For one thing, half a trillion US dollars is a lot of money, and some experts estimate that is what the total tab might amount to in the end. Space also knows that money aside, the risks associated with any Mars mission are enormous.

A recent TV series presented on the National Geographic Channel about the establishment of a human colony on Mars cast SpaceX in a very positive light. The degree of risk involved was certainly spelled out.

As for the actual costs for such an undertaking, they were presented, but not really in depth nor as some sort of vital national goal at a time when the huge sum of money could be applied to other high priority infrastructure and climate arresting programs here on earth.

Viewers in China and elsewhere no doubt enjoyed this TV series. This writer certainly did, but its advertorial slant or intentional bias could not go unnoticed.

China is certainly keeping an eye on the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which launched one of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles carrying a record 104 satellites into orbit from its Sriharikota spaceport on the southeast coast of India on February 15. The 1,500kg payload included 88 satellites from the US, the Cartosat-2 earth observation satellite was among the three from India, and 13 from other countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Kazakhstan.

INDIA SPACE MISSION

Although this is an impressive accomplishment, and enhances the standing of the ISRO in the realm of commercial launches, this event does not mean that India is anywhere near ready to compete with China in terms of a manned lunar spaceflight. And this is a must before lunar outposts emerge. However, the ISRO is steady in its quest to offer a reliable and cost-effective way to deploy multiple spacecraft regardless of where those vehicles are heading.

One more wild card in the mix surprisingly enough is the small fleet of lunar landers and rovers competing in the Google Lunar XPrize competition. All five of the finalists should start arriving on the lunar surface just as China’s Chang’e-5 arrives late this year. In fact, in this competition Team Indus has already announced that it will set its lander down on the Mare Imbrium or Sea of Showers and guess what? If Chang’e-5 follows in the footsteps of China’s earlier Chang’e 3, it will arrive at the same lunar destination. In fact, the Indians and the Chinese and maybe the other Lunar XPrize teams as well may find themselves in close company.

The Israelis – their team is named SpaceIL – booked a passage in 2015 for trip on a SpaceX rocket in 2017, so the successful Falcon 9 flight a few days ago is a welcome relief for them following the explosion of a Falcon 9 back in September. Will they be sitting on the moon, smiling as the Chinese lander plunks down? Wait and see.

These teams will crank up the lunar debate. The fact that several of them have established ties to some formidable and deep-pocketed potential players simply underscores the open-ended capitalist agenda here as well. It is not a flight of fancy to say that the dawn of lunar mining, for example, lies just over the horizon.

A new generation of highly capable robotic platforms, and steady progress in a range of new sensors along with an increasing role for formation flying techniques by satellite operators are just some of the possible advancements. These will make the required return flights from the moon not just less expensive, but more reliable as well.

China may have all of the vital pieces of the puzzle in place, but as this new race to the moon starts to heat up, Musk may experience a change of heart and elect to join in – doing so at a much higher operational tempo.

President Trump may suddenly see this as an opportunity – one too good to pass up for several reasons – as well. He has the ability, including the political will and inclination, to make things happen. Make no mistake about it. And if the US suddenly becomes very enamored by the prospects of a return to the moon, China will have to respond accordingly. And China will do so rapidly because this is not a race that China intends to lose.

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