China launches lunar probe in first-of-its-kind mission to get samples from far side of the moon as "space race" with U.S. ramps up

China launches lunar probe in first-of-its-kind mission to get samples from far side of the moon as “space race” with U.S. ramps up

China on Friday launched a lunar probe to land on the far side of the moon in a first-of-its-kind mission to return with samples that could provide insights into differences between the less-explored region and the better-known near side.

It is the latest advance in China’s increasingly sophisticated space exploration program, which is now competing with the U.S., still the leader in space.

Free from exposure to Earth and other interference, the moon’s somewhat mysterious far side is ideal for radio astronomy and other scientific work. Because the far side never faces Earth, a relay satellite is needed to maintain communications.

three-member crew on its own orbiting space station and aims to put astronauts on the moon by 2030. Three Chinese lunar probe missions are planned over the next four years.

The rocket carrying the Chang’e-6 lunar probe – named after the Chinese mythical moon goddess – lifted off Friday at 5:27 p.m. as planned from the Wenchang launch center on the island province of Hainan.

China Space
This photo provided on Jan. 12, 2019, by the China National Space Administration via Xinhua News Agency shows the lunar lander of the Chang’e-4 probe in a photo taken by the rover Yutu-2 on Jan. 11. 

/ AP

Huge numbers of people crowded Hainan’s beaches to view the launch, which comes in the middle of China’s five-day May Day holiday.

After orbiting the moon to reduce speed, the lander will separate from the spacecraft and begin scooping up samples almost as soon as it sets down. It will then reconnect with the returner for the trip back to Earth. The entire mission is set to last 53 days.

China in 2020 returned samples from the moon’s near side, the first time anyone has done so since the U.S. Apollo program that ended in the 1970s. Analysis of the samples found they contained water in tiny beads embedded in lunar dirt.

Also in the past week, three Chinese astronauts returned home from a six-month mission on the country’s orbiting space station after the arrival of its replacement crew. The Shenzhou 18 flight to replace the crew was China’s seventh piloted mission to its space station and its fifth since around-the-clock staffing began in June 2022.

China’s newest crew of astronauts takes control of Tiangong space station


China built its own space station after being excluded from the International Space Station, largely because of U.S. concerns over the Chinese military’s total control of the space program amid a sharpening competition in technology between the two geopolitical rivals. U.S. law bars almost all cooperation between the U.S. and Chinese space programs without explicit congressional approval.

China’s ambitious space program aims to put astronauts on the moon by 2030, as well as bring back samples from Mars around the same year and launch three lunar probe missions over the next four years. The next is schedule for 2027.

Longer-term plans call for a permanent crewed base on the lunar surface, although those appear to remain in the conceptual phase.

China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, becoming the third country after the former Soviet Union and the U.S. to put a person into space using its own resources.

The three-module Tiangong space station, much smaller than the ISS, was launched in 2021 and completed 18 months later. It can accommodate up to six astronauts at a time and is mainly dedicated to scientific research. The crew will also install space debris protection equipment, carry out payload experiments, and beam science classes to students on Earth.

China has also said that it eventually plans to offer access to its space station to foreign astronauts and space tourists. With the ISS nearing the end of its useful life, China could eventually be the only country or corporation to maintain a crewed station in orbit.

The U.S. space program is believed to still hold a significant edge over China’s due to its spending, supply chains and capabilities.

The U.S. aims to put a crew back on the lunar surface by the end of 2025 as part of a renewed commitment to crewed missions, aided by private sector players such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. They plan to land on the moon’s south pole where permanently shadowed craters are believed to be packed with frozen water.

NASA and its partners plan to retire the ISS in 2030, remotely driving it to a destructive re-entry in the atmosphere above the south Pacific Ocean, well away from shipping lanes and populated areas. That will leave Tiangong as the only government-operated space station in low-Earth orbit.

China plans to launch its own taikonauts to the moon starting in 2030, fueling what NASA Administrator Bill Nelson calls a new superpower space race.

“It is a fact: We’re in a space race,” he told Politico in an interview published last year. “And it is true that we better watch out that they don’t get to a place on the moon under the guise of scientific research. And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they say, ‘keep out, we’re here, this is our territory.'”

William Harwood contributed to this report.