What Is China Doing on the Dark Side of the Moon?

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.

When the 22-year-old, U.S.-led International Space Station finally craps out some time in the late 2020s or early 2030s, Tiangong could become the only permanent habitat in low Earth orbit. If the United States wants to maintain a significant human presence over Earth after the ISS, it might have no choice but to ask China for permission to embark.

That would make Tiangong the “de facto international space station,” Johnson-Freese argued. Neither NASA nor the Chinese space agency responded to requests for comment.

It could be decades before the end-game is clear, Christopher Impey, a University of Arizona astronomer, told The Daily Beast. “If you take the long view, which the Chinese always do, in 50 to 100 years we will be living in the solar system and there will be a substantial economic activity off-Earth,” he said.

“They want to be first,” Impey added of the Chinese, “and they want to be in the driver’s seat for that future.”

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