China has announced that it will launch a space probe to the Moon and appears to have framed the mission and the nation's future space program as a competition with the United States. The probe is set to launch within the year, according to state media.
China has plans to place its Chang'e-5 lunar probe on the Moon before year's end, according to People's Daily(per the Daily Mail), the nation's official state paper. The China National Space Administration says that the space probe is in the process of undergoing a final round of tests that make it ready to launch by August. Hu Hao, an official from China's Lunar Exploration Programme, told the People's Daily that the agency would be attempting to accomplish new goals with the probe, labeling the endeavor as "one of China's most complicated and difficult space missions." Among the duties the lunar probe is expected to perform are sample collection, launching from the Moon and making a high-speed reentry on its return through the Earth's atmosphere.
But the official announcement cast the United States as a competitor in the push toward the Moon, even though the American space program, other than sending astronauts to the International Space Program, has been basically focused on Mars for years. But newly elected President Donald Trump spoke of returning to the Moon (the U.S. remains the only nation to ever successfully place humans on the Moon) in the near future.
The official Science and Technology Daily reported that China's president, Xi Jinping, has called for his country to become a global power in space exploration. The newspaper said, "Not long ago, the United States' Trump Administration revealed an ambition to return to the moon. Our country also announced a series of deep space exploration plans. The moon is the first stop for humanity's march towards deep space."
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was asked by President Trump in February to ascertain the possibility of launching a manned Moon mission in 2018. As Reuters reported, the Trump administration specifically wanted to know the feasibility of putting astronauts aboard the debut flight of the agency's heavy-lift rocket, a mission that that has been planned as unmanned. This would, of course, set the stage for a return to the Moon by U.S. astronauts, a feat that hasn't happened since Apollo 17 landed in December 1972.
NASA is currently engaged in a feasibility study of the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion deep-space capsule and expects to have an answer by the end of March.
In addition to the Chang'e-5 lunar probe, China also has plans to land a probe on the lunar surface sometime in 2018. Set to journey to the far side of the Moon, it will be the first to actually touch down there.
"Our long-term goal is to explore, land, and settle [on the moon]," Yu Weiren, the official designer for both China's Moon and Mars programs, told BBC News in April 2016. "We want a manned lunar landing to stay for longer periods and establish a research base."
Although there are as yet no concrete plans for manned lunar missions by NASA, China says it wants to put a man on the Moon by 2036. Plans to launch its first Mars probe in 2020 were announced in January, with another probe to head toward Mars at a later date. A probe to make the long trip to Jupiter is also in the works.
China's space program has been on a fast track since the turn of the millennium. The country saw its first manned space mission in 2003.
Although there have been calls for further international cooperation about space exploration, with China making overtures to the U.S. for mutually cooperative ventures, the United States Congress has made it illegal for such missions to take place.
[Featured Image by Ng Han Guan/AP Images]