China moon landing signals new age of exploration

One small roll for a robot: Jade Rabbit is the first rover on the moon since 1972.

The Chinese robot Jade Rabbit has become the first rover to make tracks on the moon in 42 years. With China planning a permanent lunar base, is this the start of a new space age?

For the first time in a generation, humanity has a presence on the moon. For 42 years neither a person’s foot nor a robot’s wheel has made its mark on the surface of our satellite. Now China has become the third country (after the USSR and the USA) to conduct a successful moon landing.

The Chinese spacecraft touched down smoothly onto the lunar surface on Saturday afternoon. Then, to a ripple of applause from mission control, the moon rover Jade Rabbit trundled out of its landing module and onto the empty lunar plain.

Jade Rabbit will spend the next three months gathering soil samples and photographing the landscape. But the mission’s most important function is as a stepping stone in China’s ambitious space agenda. Within a few years the emerging superpower plans to put human beings on the moon. And before 2030 China intends to build a permanent lunar base.

These plans are driven not only by intrepid spirit and national pride, but also more hard-headed motives. Chinese leaders hope that the moon will offer a fresh source of rare minerals and even alternative sources of fuel. Before a decade has passed, we could be mining the moon.

It is not only the Chinese who are stepping up their off-planet endeavours. Japan, Korea, India and Russia are plotting lunar landings, and even Iran has succeeded this weekend in launching a monkey into space.

Then there are commercial companies. SpaceX, a project run by American entrepreneur Elon Musk, has already sent missions to the International Space Station and plans to make bigger steps still. Other companies such as Moon Express are vying for licences to start drilling on the moon.

After decades in the doldrums, space exploration is suddenly back on the agenda. Some experts predict that the Chinese programme will galvanise NASA and the US government to renew their efforts. What might this ‘new space race’ bring?

Cosmic competition

There are whole worlds out there to explore, say space enthusiasts, yet ever since the height of the Cold War we have been stubbornly ignoring the possibilities of space travel. A renewed spirit of competition will launch humanity back into the final frontier – and this time we’re there to stay.

Careful what you wish for, doom mongers reply: this cosmic competition could easily develop a dangerous edge. Do we really want the greatest powers in history scrabbling for land on other worlds? And how long would it be before our solar system starts to fill with terrifyingly destructive weapons? International rivalry is costly enough here on Earth: let’s not export it off-planet.

You Decide

  1. ‘By the end of the century there will be humans living on the moon.’ Do you agree?
  2. Is competition between great powers good for humanity?

Activities

  1. Jade Rabbit’s name was decided in a national online poll. What would you call a robot built to explore the moon? Pick a name and explain why you have chosen it.
  2. Do some research and write down three key challenges that humans face in travelling to other planets.

Some People Say...

“When men reach beyond this planet, they should leave their national differences behind them.’J F Kennedy”

What do you think?

Q & A

Will I ever have a chance to go to the moon?
That’s not impossible! In fact you can already reserve a place on one of the first commercial space flights. That would cost you £150,000, of course, and you wouldn’t get to leave the spacecraft. But these are very early days for space tourism: setting foot on another planet might soon be a perfectly achievable dream.
And what’s this about weapons in space? Could that actually happen?
Yes. The UN has passed two separate resolutions against the militarisation of space, and until now all nations have been faithful to the spirit of those agreements. But weapons stationed in space could be incredibly powerful, and one day a government may find the temptation too great – a scary prospect.

Word Watch

Jade Rabbit
The name, chosen by Chinese people in a poll, refers to a folktale about a rabbit who lives on the moon. This legend is based on the moon’s markings, in which East Asian observers see the shape of a rabbit.
Emerging superpower
China is already the second largest economy in the world and, although growth has slowed in recent years, its economy is expanding at a rate of nearly eight percent each year. Some predict that China will have overtaken the USA within a decade.
Sources of fuel
The moon has relatively rich supplies of an isotope called helium-3, which scientists believe could be used in developing effective nuclear fusion. If fusion could be made to work it may provide a powerful, sustainable and non-polluting energy source which could solve many of our energy problems.
NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the US space agency, and as such it is behind many of humanity’s greatest cosmic achievements. At its height NASA was spending almost four percent of America’s GDP, but its funding has since been drastically cut. Combined with a confusion over the agency’s objectives, that has led to a drastic slowdown in NASA’s progress in space exploration.

Subjects

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