Jan 192012
Long March 2F launch vehicle

Image via Wikipedia

The next decade will see China become a space power, as well as an earthly one

BY ONE well-known (if fictitious) criterion, the purpose of a space programme is to boldly go where no man has gone before. China, however, has a different plan: to boldly go back where men have already been. Specifically, with the release on December 29th of an official space-policy paper, it has said it wants to send people to the moon.

The last earthling to leave a footprint on the lunar surface, Eugene Cernan, did so in 1972. He was (and is) American. According to the new paper—the first of its kind since 2006—the next print in the regolith is likely to be Chinese. The country’s experts have long discussed the possibility of such a mission, but this is the first official acknowledgment of a decision to proceed.

The document is, however, more than a mere claim to vainglory. It outlines a programme that will, if fully implemented, make China a space power equal to America and Russia.

One goal for the next five years is to improve China’s Long March rockets, the workhorses that launch its satellites. The Long March-5, in particular, is intended to be able to lift 25 tonnes into low Earth orbit. (Perhaps significantly, this is 600kg more than America’s space shuttles could manage.) Another part of the plan is to upgrade the country’s satellite networks. A series of high-resolution Earth-observation satellites is to be launched over the next five years, and by 2020 the Beidou global-positioning and navigation system, a set of 35 satellites equivalent to America’s Global Positioning System, should be in place. That will provide a boost to the command and control capabilities of China’s armed forces. Progress was also promised on Tiangong-1, China’s newly launched space station. And there will be unmanned flights to the moon, including sample-return missions, and manned orbital flights to test life-support systems.

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