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Astronomical ambitions: China shoots for the Moon

Image credit: China National Space Administration (Creative Commons)

According to Chinese folklore, a young woman named Chang’e consumed an elixir of immortality and ascended to the moon, where she became a goddess.

On 3 January this year, the Chinese unmanned lunar probe Chang’e 4 reached the moon and was similarly immortalised: This time in the chronicles of scientific achievement, for performing the unmatched feat of successfully landing on the far side of the moon. Free from elixirs and potions of perpetuity, this achievement was made possible by the technical expertise of the scientists at the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the unparalleled technology available to them and the ambition of a nation eager to establish itself as a bona fide member of the global scientific vanguard.

The complexity of Chang’e 4’s trailblazing mission and the innovation required of the CNSA to ensure its success reveal just how impressive this feat is. The difficulty of exploring the far side of the moon - which is constantly oriented away from Earth - lies in the fact that radio communication is hindered by the moon’s mass. But Chang’e 4 is able to maintain communication with Earth via the relay satellite Queqiao, cunningly prepositioned in a gravitationally stable locus behind the moon.

Since its inception in 2003, China’s Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) has experienced a meteoric rise to the forefront of scientific discovery. A Chinese satellite successfully orbited the moon for the first time in 2007, a feat first achieved by the Soviet Union in 1966, and now China already has plans to establish a crewed Lunar Palace in the “not too distant future”, according to a video published by state media and CNSA.

Such rapid progress reflects the surge in research and development funding seen in China. From 2000 to 2016, Chinese investment in research and development doubled relative to its GDP, constituting a gross tenfold increase, and China’s space exploration budget is the second-largest in the world.

Whether or not such investment in the lunar program will yield economic return remains to be seen. However, Chinese state media has reported that preliminary investigations are being conducted into the potential of lunar resource extraction and space-based renewable energy production.

Moreover, Ye Peijian, chief commander of China’s Lunar Exploration Program, likened the moon to the disputed Diaoyu Islands of the South China Sea, stating that “if we don’t go, our descendants will blame us.” Ye’s disconcerting comments give traction to the notion that China’s lunar ambitions may not be as benevolent as it would have the world believe. Indeed, many US commentators have already envisioned another Space Race eventuating.

What is certain though, is that the astronomical success of the program has caught the attention of the globe and conferred the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considerable scientific clout. Previously, China had focused its scientific efforts towards research with more tangible benefits, such as crop enhancement and renewable energy. However, lunar exploration, with its associated glamour and prestige, constitutes an ideal vehicle for earning recognition and broadcasting China’s coming of age as a benevolent scientific superpower to the world.

Perhaps equally important, though, is the CCP’s opportunity to capitalise on its national glory and stimulate both patriotism and unity within the Chinese population. The party has launched multiple initiatives geared towards engaging the civil sphere with President Xi’s “New Space Age” scheme. In 2016, China designated April 24 as its National Space Day in an attempt to popularise the country’s space program. Furthermore, in August 2018, a public contest was launched to name the Chang’e 4 lunar rover. Despite receiving over 42,000 entries, officials opted to reuse the name of Chang’e 3’s rover. Other public engagement initiatives include the construction of the world’s largest planetarium in Shanghai, and the recent release of the hugely successful sci-fi film ‘Wandering Earth’ (2019).

China’s moon landing may be its crowning achievement in recent history, but the nation’s scientists have also been churning out scientific articles at a rate that, in 2016, surpassed that of their US counterparts for the first time ever. Despite publishing more work though, the overall quality of Chinese research still lags behind that of the US.

This discrepancy may arise from some of the unique challenges that pervade the Chinese scientific ecosystem. In a survey of 466 Chinese scientists from top-tier Chinese universities, more than 30 per cent of respondents reported that bureaucratic intervention and fixation on immediate results posed challenges to China’s research environment. This apparent overemphasis on results, rather than genuine engagement with the scientific method, is somewhat troubling for a nation that seems poised to lead the world in certain areas of research.

Science in China has a somewhat tumultuous history; several of the world’s most famous inventions, such as gunpowder and paper, are attributed to China, yet its intellectuals suffered extensive persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Now, China has demonstrated to the world, and to itself, that it is ready to reassume the mantle as a global scientific leader.

Max Collett is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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