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China’s robotic Chang’e-5 lunar exploration probe touched down on the Moon with the aim of collecting samples of rock and dust to bring back to Earth.

The mission has targeted Mons Rümker, a high volcanic complex in a nearside region referred to as Oceanus Procellarum.

The probe is expected to spend the next several days examining its surroundings and gathering up surface materials.

Chang’e-5 Will Help Scientists Learn More About the Moon

The intention is to package approximately 2kg of regolith (soil) to send up to an orbiting vehicle that can deliver the samples back to Earth, which can help scientists learn more about the Moon’s origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface, according to the Guardian. 

However, there is more behind China’s space mission than just analyzing samples of regolith. This is Beijing’s opportunity to become a space superpower, alongside Russia and the US.

Chinese President Xi Jinping hopes to operate a permanent space station called Tiangong (heavenly place) – planned for as early as 2022, and he also wants to send astronauts to the Moon.

This is not the first time that China has sent a prototype to space. The first, Tiangong-1, was launched in 2011, and completed its mission before Beijing lost control of the craft and it crashed into the ocean in 2018. A space laboratory called Tiangong-2 was launched in 2016 and made a re-entry in 2019.

Chang’e-5 requires one lunar day to complete its mission, the equivalent of 14 days on Earth, so that it does not have to withstand too many of the Moon’s extreme overnight temperatures.

China is Serious About Becoming a Space Power

There are no guarantees that the mission will be successful. The Guardian reports that Clive Neal, a geoscientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said that the lander could crash, or the samples could fall out as it moves. It also still has to make the journey back to Earth and land smoothly in inner Mongolia later this month. Even if it did crash, such a disaster is unlikely to deter China from its mission of competing with Russia and the US in the “space race,” as proven by the fact that Beijing has been carrying out these ventures since 2011.

China’s main intention behind its Chang’e-5 mission is to beat the US, and there are many reasons why Washington should be concerned about this. Dr. Malcolm Davis, Senior Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the Daily Express that the Americans fear Beijing’s presence in cislunar space because they could deny the US access to it. He added that the Chinese are actively developing counter-space capabilities and anti-satellite weapons to impose their will upon others. Future American administrations really do need to pay attention to the space race, because if what Davis says is true, their space weaponry could pose a direct challenge to American national security.

America Can’t Afford to Lose the New Space Race

As university scientist John Bridges suggests, China is spending vast amounts of money on research spending. The country is close to achieving its aim of spending 2.5 percent of its GDP on research and development. This is closing the gap on the US, which spent 2.8 percent of its GDP on space research in 2018. He explained that the Chang’e-5 mission could pave the way for future collaborations like the successful US-Soviet Skylab space station link up in 1973-74, despite the growing hostilities between both countries back then. However, unless relations between Washington and Beijing improve post-COVID-19, that seems unlikely for now.

Though the scientific discoveries that the Chang’e-5 mission should hopefully uncover about the Moon will no doubt be fascinating, there is more to this venture than meets the eye. The US cannot afford to take its eye off China’s expansion into space as the latter hopes to be a comprehensive space power by 2049.