A new space race emerges in Asia, with the moon targeted yet again

30 Jun 2017

Image: Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

Almost 50 years after the height of the first space race between the US and the USSR, China and Japan appear to be locked into one of their own.

It’s 1969. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are wandering around the moon as Michael Collins waits around in orbit. The space race is run. The US has won.

Sure, the USSR sent the first man into space, but the lunar expedition was clearly the blue-riband event in this contest.

Future Human

Space race, Moon

Turning Japanese

Now, almost 50 years later, the moon is again fixed in the crosshairs of two countries racing to prove their celestial exploits. China and Japan, start your engines.

While the US and Russia (formerly of the USSR) have moved on, with Mars the new target, that doesn’t mean Asian exploits should go unnoticed.

This week, Japan revealed plans to send people to the moon by 2030. Interestingly, it will piggyback on NASA’s 2030 Mars pursuit to do it.

The idea is to first join a NASA-led mission in 2025 to build a space station in the moon’s orbit, as part of a longer-term effort by NASA to reach Mars, according to reports.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency hopes that “contributing to the multinational mission and sharing Japanese technology will land it a coveted spot at the station, from which it could eventually send an astronaut to the moon”.

China in your hands

Japan’s move comes after China revealed its own plans to (to a degree) colonise the moon.

In April, China announced that it had opened discussions with the European Space Agency (ESA) to potentially help it realise its goal of establishing a moon base.

The secretary general of the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), Tian Yulong, made a statement confirming the country’s intentions of working with Europe, not only on a moon base but on other future endeavours, too.

Pal Hvistendahl, a spokesperson for the ESA, said this was a new era in space exploration.

“The Chinese have a very ambitious moon programme already in place,” he confirmed.

“Space has changed since the space race of the ’60s. We recognise that to explore space for peaceful purposes, we do [need] international cooperation.”

In preparation of such a feat, Chinese volunteers will live in a simulated space cabin for up to 200 days in a lunar cohabitation trial.

See you on the dark side of the moon

China has quite a bit of form in this regard. In 2014, it sent a spacecraft around the astronomical body, capturing a stunning image of its ‘dark side’ (the far side of the moon, in truth) on its return to Earth.

The far side of the moon, as seen by a 2014 Chinese probe. Image: Xinhuanet

The far side of the moon, as seen by a 2014 Chinese probe. Image: Xinhuanet

Soon after, the CNSA revealed plans to send up a lunar-landing probe, aiming to conduct the first ever study of geological conditions in a part of the moon that we don’t know a whole lot about.

Radio transmissions from Earth are unable to reach the far side, making a potential mission an excellent opportunity to place a radio telescope for use by astronomers.

Add in India’s remarkably cost-effective endeavours, and the second-tier space race – of those operating below NASA’s immense portfolio of missions – is building up a head of steam.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic