China’s Amazing Deep Space Exploration

A diagram of the lander (right bottom), rover (left bottom), and a relay satellite named Queqiao (Magpie Bridge) for Chang’e-4 lunar probe. In August 2018, China unveiled its moon lander and rover for the Chang’e-4 lunar mission. courtesy of Shenzhou Media

Humans are born explorers. The moment we began walking upright, we started working hard to understand the world around us, which enabled us to build civilizations. Aside from practical reasons, mankind’s innate nature to explore has propelled development of deep space exploration.

Deep space exploration involves both exploration of the solar system and outer space. In China, all space exploration activities on celestial bodies outside Earth are collectively called deep space exploration. At present, China is developing its moon and Mars missions and starting to prove feasibility of follow-up deep space exploration missions. In 2019, China will continue to accelerate its space exploration in various aspects.

China’s space exploration began with a lunar mission. The closest celestial body to Earth, the moon is rich in resources and energy, and has a special environment. Furthermore, it could serve as an ideal base and outpost for human development in deep space. When China launched its lunar program in 2004, it was named Chang’e after the Chinese goddess of the moon. The project adopted a three-step development strategy: reaching lunar orbit, landing and roving on the moon and a lunar sample return mission. Each step builds on the outcomes of the previous, compiling a deeper foundation for future work. China has already completed the first and second steps. Around 2020, the Chang’e-5, China’s first sample return mission, is expected to bring at least two kilograms of lunar soil and rock samples back to Earth. The program aims to lay the foundation for a future manned lunar landing.

Mars is the most similar and the second closest planet to Earth in the solar system. It is now also the most studied planet by humans aside from Earth. In 2019, China will continue its Mars exploration activities at a deeper level and promote improved understanding of the climate, geology and resources of Mars to further study the origin and evolution of life on Earth. China will launch its first Mars probe in 2020, which is expected to orbit, land and release a rover on Mars after it reaches the Red Planet in 2021. Completing the three tasks of orbiting, landing, and releasing a rover in just one launch is unprecedented in the history of Mars exploration.

Asteroid exploration is another hot spot in 2019 for China’s deep space exploration. Asteroids are minor celestial bodies. Many are thought to be remnants of the substances created during the formation of the solar system. Thus, exploring the asteroids may provide more information on the formation of the solar system and help humans find new resources and energy. Currently, Chinese scientists have already developed a plan for asteroid exploration. The strategy is to fly a probe near an asteroid, move alongside it for a period, and finally land on one to conduct sampling analysis of the surface and take samples back to Earth. Scientists aim to conduct research on near-Earth asteroids as a whole and analyze some designated areas.

China cannot and will not stop deep space exploration. Aerospace experts have predicted that the country will conduct its first manned lunar landing around 2030 and its first manned Mars landing around 2050. One day in the future, visiting the moon or Mars may no longer be the stuff of science fiction.

The author is chief science popularization expert on space exploration technology at the China Association for Science and Technology and a former researcher with the China Academy of Space Technology.

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