China will set up a research base on the moon by around 2027, eight years earlier than previously scheduled.
According to Chinese space authorities, the new completion target for the unmanned lunar station is being jointly built with Russia.
China’s Chang’e 8 moon landing mission originally aimed to carry out scientific experiments such as 3D printing of lunar dust, which would follow two more launches in the next few years.
But Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the China National Space Administration, said the Chang’e 8’s new job was to put an unmanned research station on the surface of the moon, previously scheduled for 2035.
Wu did not give details on the reason behind the change of plan, but stressed that the purpose of the mission was to “build a solid foundation for the peaceful use of lunar resources”.
For years, China’s moon programme has progressed steadily and at its own pace, with Chinese space authorities saying repeatedly that they were not interested in a race like that during the US-Soviet Cold War.
The thinking of Chinese policymakers might have changed because they felt threatened by a recent move by the United States.
Shortly after the Chang’e 5 mission brought lunar samples back to Earth, Zhang Chongfeng, deputy chief designer of China’s manned space programme, criticised the United States for pushing an “Enclosure Movement” on the moon.
The Enclosure Movement was a campaign by British aristocrats in the 18th and 19th centuries to seize land that was formerly owned in common by all members of a village.
The Chinese space authorities believed that US space agency Nasa’s Artemis programme, a successor to its Apollo programme, would do something similar on the moon, according to Zhang.
The 1969 Apollo 11 mission landed the first human on the moon, and the Artemis programme planned to send US astronauts back there by 2024. However, unlike Apollo, the new programme aimed to have the astronauts remain there, along with the construction of some large-scale facilities in the moon’s orbit and on its surface.
The US government and Nasa have proposed the Artemis Accords to set rules for future lunar activities. Already signed by more than a dozen US allies, the accords allow governments or private companies to protect their facilities or “heritage sites” by setting up safety zones that forbid the entry of others.
China and Russia are opposed to the accords because this challenges the existing international protocols including the UN’s Moon Agreement, which states that the moon belongs to the entire human race, not a certain party.
The US programme is extremely complex. It requires building a facility similar to the International Space Station in the moon’s orbit, with the programme’s estimated cost at US$100 billion by 2025.
But China has planned a cost-effective method. China would directly put a powered research station on the moon. The unmanned facility would allow visiting Chinese astronauts to stay on the moon for as long as their American peers but only at a fraction of the cost.
To counter the US territorial claims, China would also deploy a mobile station. This moon base on wheels would be able to roam freely on the lunar surface for over 1,000km
And, unlike the American programme, which focuses on surface activities, China would pay a great deal of attention to the exploration of caves, which could provide a natural shelter for the construction of permanent settlements.