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The Space Race continues – The military implications of China’s first lunar probe

In a move that’s already sparked sentiments similar to those created by the original US/Soviet 1950’s race against time (and gravity), China has joined this ever-exclusive club of celestial’s with its first ever moon landing, the first moon launch in the 21st century and one that’s showing some worrying trends seen the first time around.

China’s moon rover, ‘Chang’e-3′ gets its name from a Chinese legend about a goddess of the same name who is said to have lived in a palace on the moon. Unfortunately this is where many believe the romance ends. Launched in the early hours of Monday morning from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in the south-western Sichuan Province, China rejoins space exploration at a time when lunar missions have all but ceased. NASA, having been forced to work with a skeleton staff for a limited period earlier this year, has taken more than a few steps back since the glory days of the Neil Armstrong, putting focus its focus on other areas. Mars is still the new nut to crack, as proven last month when NASA’s ‘Maven’ mission took off for the Red planet from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, after India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) left India’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre for Mars.

MOM launches from Satish Dhawan Space Centre on India's east coast.

MOM launches from Satish Dhawan Space Centre on India’s east coast.

The Chinese mission is a precursor for manned missions planned for the near future and has done its bit for national pride, as it set off championed by the Chinese government as not only an opportunity to muster patriotism (having encouraged the planting of Chinese flags on the moon’s surface) but also perhaps as a chance to annex the great orb and in so doing gain more political power here on Earth? Despite statements from the Chinese government that stress their ‘peaceful aims in space’, the military implications of these significant technological developments cannot be ignored.

The economic powerhouse is also said to be examining how China could “exploit the moon for its resources” according to a BBC interview with Ouyang Ziyuan, a scientist advising the mission. Ziyuan added – “The Moon is full of resources — mainly rare earth elements, titanium, and uranium, which the Earth is really short of, and these resources can be used without limitation”, but conceded that the cost would be too high to look at doing this any time soon.

More than a symbolic show of technological superiority and bravado, the US has called the mission ‘wasteful’ and condemned it as a ploy for investigating the viability of a space-launched weapons system. The mission itself is an impressive undertaking considering it’s the first ‘soft landing’ on the moon since 1976 when Russia sent their last unmanned probe. ‘Jade Rabbit’, the vehicle on board the rocket will begin its exploration of the the Sinus Iridum crater in about two weeks. Although it’s not expected to unearth any unknown elements, all eyes will be on the mission and China’s resultant actions.

Unlike the first space race however, the US has not used mistrust and China’s lack of transparency as a reason for a lunar mission of their own. When questioned earlier this year on NASA’s plans to counter China’s efforts, NASA Administrator Charles Boden replied, “I don’t know how to say it more plainly. NASA does not have a human lunar mission in its portfolio and we are not planning for one.”

 

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