The successful landing of the Chang’E-3 spacecraft on the Moon and the rollout of its rover has added a significant milestone to the trajectory of China’s space programme. With this, China became the third country to conduct a soft landing on the Moon, after the USA and Russia. The landing comes after a gap of 37 years, as the last such feat was accomplished in 1976 by the Soviet Union. In addition, this is the first major space achievement of China under the administration of the new leadership led by President Xi Jinping. Before the Chang’E-3, there were 129 lunar landings, out of which 49% failed, and only 13 of the unmanned landings were successful. In this context, the maiden success of the Chang’E-3 landing is exemplary.


The Chang’E-3 mission is named after Chang’E, the goddess of the Moon in Chinese mythology, and its rover is named “Yutu” (Jade Rabbit), after her pet. The mission is part of the second phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme adopted in 2004.  It includes orbiting the Moon, landing on it, and returning lunar surface samples to Earth. The Chang’E-1 mission launched in 2007, orbited the Moon and sent back high-resolution images of the Earth’s satellite, which was used to create the most complete lunar hologram published to date. The Chang’E-2 mission which followed, orbited the Moon and verified crucial technologies for Chang’E-3, in addition to surveying Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows), the landing area for the mission. The Chang’E 4 mission on the lines of its predecessor, is expected to be launched in the near future, and the third phase will be completed with the Chang’E-5 robotic mission that will return samples to Earth by 2017. In the current mission, the Chang’E-3 lander will carry out scientific explorations at the landing site for one year while the Yutu rover will study the lunar regolith for three months. The Yutu is equipped with cameras to photograph its surroundings, ground-penetrating radar and a robotic arm that scoops up soil samples, which will be analyzed using an onboard spectrometer. The lander is equipped with a near-ultraviolet telescope that will be used for conducting astronomical observations.


The primary objective of China’s lunar missions lies in exploring the Moon’s resources. The Moon is supposed to hold Uranium, Titanium, and other mineral resources. The YuTu is assigned with the primary task of surveying the Moon's geological structure, surface substances and looking for natural resources. That the lunar exploration program is expected to culminate in 2017 by the return of lunar soil samples back to Earth, highlights the emphasis given to the identification and assessment of these resources. Supposedly, of particular importance is the Helium-3 isotope which could be used as a fuel for power generation through nuclear fusion. Helium-3 is scarce on earth and abundant on the Moon, with its approximate lunar reserves ranging from 1-5 million tonnes. It is estimated that 25 tonnes of the radioactive isotope would be enough to power a country like the US for one full year. However, the commercial viability, mining and transportation capability as well as the development of fusion reactors for the purpose are certainly a long way ahead.


Technological advancement is perhaps the biggest spin-off from such missions. The current mission and its successor will add to China’s experience in soft landing and surface exploration techniques and systems. The testing of propulsion technologies related to lunar orbital insertion, long distance communications and remote operations will facilitate China’s future missions on planets and asteroids. To enable the Chang’E mission, China's spacecraft tracking and control network has expanded to include two newly built measuring and control stations, in its Xinjiang and Heilongjiang provinces. China also officially opened its first centre for tele-operation at the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre following its successful trial use for the lunar mission. The further advancement of China’s lunar programme will similarly facilitate more infrastructure buildup for China’s space and allied sectors. Apart from these infrastructural benefits, there are also possibilities for the production of substances with a high degree of purity not possible on earth, because of the vacuum and low gravity conditions in the Moon. This will enhance China’s research and development in various fields including material science. All these innovations will directly and indirectly contribute to the much needed innovation for the growth of China’s industries as well as its recently floated economic reforms.


China has always considered it necessary to contribute to space science and technology in a way which is in consonance with its civilizational, demographic, political and economic stature. The successful landing of the Chang’E-3 has resulted in the opening of newer avenues for China to advance its space programme. The success of China’s lunar mission will take China one step closer to its missions to Mars and other planets, as well as deep space exploration. With the manned space programme of China currently reaching the level of its first space station development by 2022, it is bound to merge with its larger space exploration programme. As a result, within 10-15 years, China, in all probability might put its first man on Moon. China’s international commercial space services programme will also get significant impetus from this mission, as the confidence level of customer nations with respect to China’s space credentials is bound to increase.


The Chang’E-3 mission has also demonstrated China’s shift towards international co-operation in its space diplomacy.  The participation of the European Space Agency (ESA) in providing support to a Chinese mission through its deep space network (Estrack) is notable. The Kourou launch centre in French Guyana under the ESA, supported the mission for the lunar orbit entry. The deep-space antennas in Spain and Australia, provided accurate location measurement after landing. China has declared that it will share all data obtained by its successful lunar probe mission with other nations, with the Xinhua News Agency adding that space exploration was “not just the patent of a certain country”. For a nation which has been kept out of co-operative space ventures by the West on political grounds, this co-operative step might be a precursor to a growing trend of collaborative efforts in the future.


China’s arrival on the Lunar surface comes nearly four decades after the US and Soviet Union lost interest in their space race over the Moon. The first rover to roll on the Moon was the USSR’s Luna-9 in 1966, and the USA’s Surveyor-1 caught up with the Soviets in the same year. The final such missions were conducted by the USA in 1972 and by the USSR in 1976. There has been views from the American side, which suggest that China is trying to play catch-up with the US and Russia through its space exploration efforts. China had earlier pushed its way into the space club of the US and Russia in 2007, with its much controversial Anti-Satellite Test (ASAT). Marked by the prominent absence of Russian and American interest in the Moon since the last few decades, China is set to monopolise on lunar activities, at least for the next decade. However, any promising discovery by China on lunar resources might force the Russian and America space agencies to rethink on their priority given to the Moon. The evolving power dynamics within this emerging three-member club has the potential to influence the fate of other spacefaring nations in ways more than one.


India, as a rising space power, has also been attempting to explore the Moon. The Chandrayaan-1 which was launched in 2008, was a lunar orbiter mission which established the presence of water molecules on the lunar surface. The Chandrayaan-2 which will be launched in the near future, will be similar to China’s Chang’e-3 mission, involving a rover for studying lunar soil samples. The delay from India’s part is due to its shift to developing a lander on its own, as the Russian Fobos-Grunt lander on which it relied (and which carried China’s first Mars orbiter, the Yinghuo-1), failed to exit Earth’s orbit in 2011. Though India need not be involved in a lunar race with China as of now, it needs to keep its focus and priority on the prospects of resource extraction in its space exploration endeavours. The Chang’E-3, at best, may be considered as a wake-up call for India to strengthen its resolve to this end. India’s strategic plans in space should be oriented towards making sure that an oligarchy of space powers is not formed of which it may be too late to become a part of.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.