China wants to be the first country to explore the dark side of the moon. The journey is more than just a prestige project; it is also a search for raw material, writes DW columnist Frank Sieren.
The dark side of the moon is, in a manner of speaking, a blind spot. Nobody really knows what kinds of rocks lie there and what raw materials could be discovered. The only information has been provided by photos from spacecraft that have flown past. The Chinese want to change that.
Last week, Beijing announced its first manned mission to the dark side of the moon. This risky moon mission, named after the Chinese moon goddess Chang'e, is expected to begin in 2020. Its predecessor, Chang'e 3, caused a stir on the moon last year. A robot appeared to have broken down but then bounced back just when Chinese engineers had given up hope. Since then, it has been transmitting valuable information back to Earth. Now, Chang'e 4, originally intended as a back-up, is poised for fame, as well.
The dark side of moon is the part of the moon permanently turned away from the Earth because of the synchronous rotation of the moon. But the sun still regularly shines there. Americans and Russians have not yet landed there because they find a mission there would be too expensive and is complicated by of the longer length of the orbit around the moon.
Such a trip is not worth the effort for NASA, which is focusing on journeys to Mars. But that may prove to be the wrong decision. With every unmanned moon mission undertaken, the Chinese acquire the skills and landing practice they could use for a subsequent Mars mission. And if there are any natural resources to be found, China will not share them. They are mostly looking for helium 3, a gas that can be used to produce energy.
Plans for a Chinese space station
Things are different in Russia: Moscow wants to cooperate with Beijing. At any rate, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin made overtures to Beijing in the past year. At the Airshow China exhibition in 2014, Oleg Ostapenko, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, presented a scheme for a potential cooperation between Russia and China, with special attention paid to electronic parts for space travel, something desperately needed in Russia because of Europe's high-tech embargo. China has nothing against cooperating with Russia, quite the contrary: China quite likes the prospect of benefitting from Russian skills to build missile systems as the Chinese are still trailing behind other space nations.
The Chinese rocket Long March 2F can transport an 11-ton load into space. The Russian Angara 5, which should be fully developed by the end of this year, is supposed to carry twice the load - and China's ambitious aerospace aspirations would require such carriers. China wants to get ready for the future. That's why the Chinese have already unveiled a solar heating system for outer space. It would, however, weigh over 10,000 tons, certainly not a lightweight - even if it were an earth-bound project. Sending so much material to space would be a Herculean feat. The Chinese are also planning their own space station, similar to the ISS. The station, to be called Tiangong, will be built in several states and is slated for completion by 2022. The first module was already sent into orbit in 2011.
From rare earths to rare moons?
China's next unmanned mission is already being prepared: Chang'e 5 will be the first to bring up to two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rock samples back to Earth for the Chinese. Scientific and business communities are surely excited about this, as about a million tons of helium 3 are believed to be on the moon. Many scientists think helium 3 could be the energy source of the future, if only the necessary fusion reactors were ripe for mass production. But even the mere possibility of finding such a profitable commodity is reason enough for China to invest billions of dollars in space travel. It is certainly worth a try.
DW columnist Frank Sieren has been living in Beijing for 20 years.