Lunar ambitions

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China plans to build a research station on the moon in about ten years, its senior space official has said.

In a speech marking China’s Space Day, Zhang Kejian, head of China National Space Administration (CNSA), disclosed the timetable for a vision set out last year of a base in the south pole region “shared by multiple countries”.

Beijing News, a state-run newspaper, said that the station would be the first leg in China’s attempts to reach further into the solar system. “Building a lunar base will accumulate experience for an eventual landing on the moon [and] serve as a stopover as we fly to Mars,” it said.

The announcement follows a series of space coups for China, including the first soft landing of a spacecraft, Chang’e-4, on the far side of the moon in January.

The Trump administration has set a deadline of 2024 for returning US astronauts to the moon — a target not yet matched by congressional funding or concrete plans. Russia plans to build an inhabitable lunar base after 2035.

“China had talked previously about their lunar intentions so it’s exciting if they have at last set out a time frame. It’s an aggressive timeline, but not impossible,” Leroy Chiao, a Chinese-American former Nasa astronaut and International Space Station commander, said. “The architecture now being developed is more about building sustainable infrastructure to keep a human presence there.”

Public enthusiasm for space exploration is swelling in China. President Xi sees a strong space programme as an essential part of the “national revival” he wants to achieve by 2050.

The south pole, where both China and America aim to land crew, is rich in ice contained within permanently shadowed craters.

The ability to source water in space is critical for human life support and manufacturing rocket fuel, making the moon a critical stepping-stone and potential refuelling base on the path to Mars and beyond. It is also the most prolifically explored, every square metre having been mapped robotically by Nasa’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

While Mike Pence, the US vice-president, has spoken of America being in a global “space race” with China, the heads of Nasa and the CNSA have sought to enhance collaboration on space goals, including a lunar research station, within the confines of US legislation that limits co-operation between the two without congressional approval.

“That race is over. We went to the moon and we won. It’s done,” Jim Bridenstine, the head of Nasa, said last month.

Beijing is on schedule to launch another lunar probe to collect and return samples by December, Mr Zhang said. Some samples would be stored permanently in Shaoshan, the home town of Mao Zedong.

Wu Weiren, the chief engineer of China’s moon mission, said recently that its astronauts would leave footprints on the moon in about ten years and China would begin further experiments on the surface by 2023.

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