China's space program celebrated a major accomplishment this week when its Chang'e 5 lunar probe mission safely landed on the moon. The landing Tuesday brought Beijing a step closer to becoming the third country in the world to retrieve geological samples from the moon, but more important, analysts say, is that China is accruing experience for more ambitious plans.
The goal of this mission is to extract 2 kilograms of sample from the moon's northern Mons Rümker region and bring it back to the Earth. If the mission succeeds, China will join the U.S. and the former Soviet Union as the only countries to have collected lunar samples.
Analysts say the complexity of Chang'e 5's unmanned exploration mission shows the great progress of China's space capabilities, and, if successful, will likely help Beijing realize future plans for manned moon landings and the construction of bases.
Namrata Goswami, an Indian defense expert and now a space policy and geopolitical scholar living in the U.S., told VOA that Chang'e 5 would allow China to advance "their understanding of rendezvous and docking, especially when they are planning on human landing."
While reaching the moon remains a significant accomplishment for any space program, Beijing's space program is still in its early stages and is still building experience.
"They're catching up to where the United States was in the 1960s," said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and space security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "The United States has already sent not just probes to the moon but humans and returned to the Earth and brought back samples of lunar rocks. So China is catching up in that respect, but they're still not where the United States is in terms of space technology. But it is nevertheless a competition for science."
Between 1969 and 1972, the U.S. brought back a total of 382 kilograms of lunar soil through seven Apollo manned spacecraft missions, six of which succeeded. The former Soviet Union used unmanned probes to take 301 grams of moon soil samples between 1970 and 1976.
Lunar missions' importance
The early detection results of lunar resources have given people a lot of hope. For example, the current director of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, said last July that collecting rare-earth metals from the moon would be possible this century.
"There could be tons and tons of platinum group metals on the moon, rare-earth metals, which are tremendously valuable on the Earth," Bridenstine told CNBC in an interview.
Harrison said some of the metal resources that exist on the moon could become materials for future human space bases, "either structures on the moon itself for habitation or for other science missions," as well as "structures in space around the Earth."
Some rare-earth metals are considered strategically important because they are an integral part of the manufacturing of electronic devices, electric vehicle batteries and military equipment. Currently, more than 80% of U.S. rare-earth imports come from China.
Analysts say moon mining is not feasible in the near future, but recent observations confirming the presence of water on the moon may help promote further exploration of space.
"Probably the most important material to look for on the lunar surface initially is going to be water ice," Harrison said, "because you can turn that water into rocket fuel to power missions back to the Earth or to other places in space, and also use it to support life on the lunar surface."
With very low gravity levels, launching rockets from the moon will be more energy-efficient than from the Earth.
Another lunar resource of potential development value is helium-3, which can be used for nuclear fusion fuel. Helium-3 is scarce on the Earth. Early lunar exploration estimates put the moon's shallow helium-3 content at millions of tons.
Goswami said, "The fusion is the future because if you want to travel from the Earth to Mars in a very limited time, the helium-3 that is there on the moon is going to form a part of that extracted mineral that is going to be turned to support nuclear fusion."
Although China is still behind the U.S. in the space competition, experts believe that China's lunar exploration project is making steady progress and could evolve into a space force with strategic military uses.
Goswami said that if a country acquires the capability to use space weapons in lunar orbit, it will provide a superior military strategic advantage.
"If you are in lunar orbit from a military scenario perspective, you can look down on the geosynchronous orbit satellite and even at times blind or disable them," she said.
Return to moon
President Donald Trump said last year that he hoped NASA would send U.S. astronauts to the moon again by 2024. It is unclear whether President-elect Joe Biden will continue to support a moon landing.
American space analysts suggest that the Biden administration could redirect NASA's research to Earth observations, to focus on issues such as climate change, and that it isn't a question of whether a U.S. return to the will be delayed, but how long.
"If it's more than just a few years of delay, that could handicap the program in the long run by causing it to stall, lose support and lead to cascading delays for years to come, in which case China very well could have time to press forward with its crew mission to the moon and put humans on the moon before the United States is able to return," Harrison said. "But if the Biden administration sticks to the program and only proposes a delay of one or two years, then I think that the program is likely to build up momentum and be more likely to succeed."
China has drawn up an initial plan for landing on the moon and building a lunar base. It is making 2030 a goal for manned moon landings and planning to build a basic lunar research station between 2021 and 2030, as well as an integrated, human-friendly lunar base between 2036 and 2045.
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.