Why only China knows how to reach the Moon in this century


Currently, humanity is in a new space race to conquer the Moon. This time not only are two superpowers competing, but a large number of countries are seeking to contribute and participate. The objective is to reach the lunar south pole to study, extract and in the future take advantage of the ice hidden in the craters in perpetual darkness. However, landing on the Moon is an incredibly difficult task with a surprisingly low success rate.

First from the moon
The first photograph taken from our natural satellite was captured by the Soviet Luna 9 probe.

Land on the Moon

Reaching the surface intact is much more complicated than is usually thought. Unlike Mars or Earth, the Moon does not have an atmosphere. Therefore, the use of retropropellants is necessary to reduce all speed and do so at the appropriate rate to land smoothly.

The ship must have the ability to precisely know its location with respect to the Moon and search for an ideal place to land on the moon. For example, avoid large slopes, craters or terrain full of large rocks.

Chang'e: the woman on the Moon

While Japan, Russia, India and Israel have failed in their lunar landing attempts in the last decade, China has managed to complete its lunar missions almost perfectly. Bringing the Chang'e 3 and 4 lunar landers to the surface; with their respective rovers Yutu and Yutu-2, and Chang'e 5 going to and from the Moon with regolith samples.

Chang'e 3 was a technology demonstration and first lunar landing attempt. By successfully descending, China became the third nation to achieve such a feat and sent a strong message to the world about the new participant in the nascent space race.. Chang'e 4 was a backup mission to its predecessor, but since it was achieved on the first attempt, they opted for a more complex mission profile.

For the first time in history, Chang'e 4 managed to attempt and successfully complete a landing on the far side of the Moon. Along with the descent module was the Yutu-2 rover, which would also be the first rover to transit this unexplored region.

Yutu 2
Photograph of the Von Kármán crater on the far side of the Moon and the Yutu-2 rover as seen from the Chang'e 3 descent module.

Chang'e 5, on the other hand, was the first of two probes seeking to bring samples of the lunar regolith to Earth. This had not been achieved since 1976 by the Soviet Luna 24 probe. Chang'e 6, twin of its predecessor, is expected to bring a few kilograms of material from the far side of the Moon to Earth.

The secret of success

China, like the US and the USSR in the era of the first space race, is dedicating great efforts and resources to achieve the objectives of its lunar program. Space is an incredibly hostile environment, from varying doses of radiation to huge temperature swings and gradients. A strong investment is necessary in the research and development of new materials and technology capable of resisting adverse conditions.

Front page
Photograph of the Soviet N1 rocket. Its objective was to take cosmonauts to the Moon, however, all its launches were unsuccessful. The second attempt went down in history as the most powerful non-nuclear explosion in history.

Space exploration is generally thought of as a product of the love of knowledge and the desire to know what lies beyond the atmosphere. However, it turns out to be a political tool to demonstrate the industrial and technological power of a nation. For this reason, Xi Jinping's government has spent billions of dollars on perfect maneuvers, equipment and instruments necessary to maximize the chances of completing the mission.

A clear example of this was the competition between the American Saturn V rocket and the failed Soviet N1 rocket. While the first had an extensive and intensive testing program to know the capabilities and limits of each component, the second only had the possibility of seeing the performance of the entire complex in flight due to lack of budget. Similarly, several private or government initiatives lack the resources to develop the technology necessary to reach the Moon.

20141028 CE5T023
View of the Earth and the Moon from Chang'e-5 T1 on October 28, 2014. Credits: CNSA, CAS.

The new space race

The main reason why only more than fifty years ago it was possible to take twelve people to walk on the lunar surface has more to do with political interests than technological challenges. NASA's budget was focused on other projects such as exploration of the solar system and the development of the Space Shuttle. A few years ago, the United States Congress took up returning to the Moon as its main objective, and thereby allocate the necessary resources to achieve it and avoid falling behind China.

Francisco Andrés Forero Daza