One year ago last month, a Chinese robot touched down on the dark side of the moon.
It was the first probe to land on the side of the moon that permanently faces away from Earth as both bodies circle around the sun. And if Beijing realizes its ambitions in coming years, it won’t be the last time it makes history—and threatens U.S. dominance in space.
The Chang’e 4 probe and the Yutu 2 rover it carried have stayed busy photographing and scanning minerals, cultivating cotton, potato and rapeseeds, growing yeast, and hatching fruit-fly eggs in the moon’s low gravity.
The experiments are intriguing in their own right, but China’s real agenda is more than scientific. For decades, Beijing has been building the infrastructure for an eventual manned mission to the moon, effectively duplicating what the United States achieved in 1969 and hopes to achieve again before 2024.
The reasons for this latter-day space race are clear, experts said, even if the real-world pay-off isn’t.
While the current, high-profile U.S. moon mission is mired in Trump-era politics, China’s keeps plodding forward with fewer bold pronouncements and more actual accomplishments.
As Chang’e 4 and Yutu 2 work away, the China National Space Administration is quietly planning a follow-up probe. Chang’e 5 could blast off this year. Unlike the one-way Chang’e 4, which is limited to bouncing back data via a relay satellite, its successor is designed to collect samples and bring them back to Earth.
Meanwhile, the Chinese space agency has resumed work on its Tiangong 3 space station and is also testing a new manned capsule for deep-space missions.