BEIJING: China’s top space official said the country will launch its first crewed lunar mission and build a lunar base in about a decade, a target that pits Beijing against the Trump administration’s goal to return Americans to the moon in five years.
Zhang Kejian, the head of China’s National Space Administration, said on Wednesday the country is planning to set up a research station on the moon’s South Pole in “about 10 years,” according to state-run news agency Xinhua. It was the earliest and most specific time frame the Chinese authorities have offered on the next crucial stages of their lunar program.
China will also launch its first crewed mission to the moon by then, he said.
The schedule for China’s lunar program, announced on China’s fourth national Space Day, underscores Beijing’s ambition to become a space power that rivals the United States and Russia.
Models of lunar rover and lander at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in 2018.
Models of lunar rover and lander at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in 2018. Photo: Shutterstock
The Lunar south pole is considered an ideal spot for establishing a base because it has ice in shadowed craters and hills that are sunnier than anywhere else on the moon.
The US is eyeing the same part of the moon, aiming to set up a permanent base there to aid an eventual mission to Mars.
Noting China’s ambition to “seize the lunar strategic high ground,” Vice President Mike Pence vowed in March to return American astronauts to the moon before 2024 “by any means necessary,” advancing NASA’s original plan for a moon landing in 2028.
China first confirmed in 2016 its goal of launching a crewed mission to the moon. A space official estimated then that China would land its first astronaut on the moon before 2036.
In January, China became the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon.
China’s lunar program took off in 2007 when it sent its first spacecraft to orbit the moon to collect data about the moon’s geography. It landed its first probe on the moon in 2013 that paved the way for the 2018 landing on the previously unexplored far side of the moon.
For China, the next step is bringing back lunar dirt to earth.
Zhang, the head of China’s space authorities, said that by the end of this year, China will launch Chang’e-5, the world’s first lunar sample-return mission since 1976.