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China’s Historic Moon Missions Leave U.S. Ambitions In The Dust

Here’s details of China’s historic moon missions, and how they compare to the plans of to NASA and other countries.

While the Earth, as usual, is busy in all capacities, our little sister the Moon has been graceful yet quiet this millennium. This is partially because the Moon is a small satellite incapable of hosting native life, but also because moon missions haven’t been a priority on our part for quite some time.

China’s Moon missions

Most recently, an unnamed Chinese lunar probe which orbited the Moon but did not land safely returned to Earth  on October 31, 2014 after being launched on a slingshot journey eight days prior.

Another of China’s recent moon missions is Chang’e- 3, which entered lunar orbit on December 6, 2013. The landing module descended to the moon’s surface to deploy a robotic rover called Jade Rabbit, aka Yutu, on Saturday, December 14, and remains there still. This historical landing, the first for China, was also the first since Russia’s in 1974.

According to the BBC, the touchdown took place on a flat volcanic plain called the Bay of Rainbows. The robotic rover, Jade Rabbit (named for a Chinese myth involving the pet rabbit of a Moon goddess), is equipped with ground-penetrating radar that will measure and gather soil and crust. It will also set up a telescope on the moon for the first time.

The rover ran into technical difficulties in February 2014 when communication with the probe was temporarily lost. Connectivity was eventually restored, however continued to degrade and was unable to maneuver its solar panels since.

What’s NASA up to?

NASA has a current moon mission as well, called LADEE: Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. While this might not sound terribly exciting, investigating the lunar dust and atmosphere is important in understanding surface boundary exospheres as they relate to our own. NASA’s explorer will not make a landing.

Space.com speculates that China’s moon lander may interfere with LADEE’s readings, as the propellant will likely contaminate the exosphere. However, this may serve an opportunity for NASA to study the impact of lunar touchdowns.

According to the Washington Post, China, as well as India, Japan, and Russia, are giving serious thought to manned moon missions in the 2020’s.

Why isn’t America more space-oriented? 

Looking back to the first successful moon landing in 1969 (which 7 percent of Americans still believe was a hoax), NASA’s lunar achievements since have been relatively limited. There hasn’t been a moon landing by NASA since 1972, with the last actual lunar landing (before China’s) by the USSR 37 years ago, according to the Planetary Society.

What can we say? We’ve had wars to fight, with one year of military budget proving greater than 50 years of NASA’s.

Last year, President Obama’s 2013 budget cut even more funding to NASA, with a flat $17.71 billion from now until 2017. While planetary exploration lost the hardest, meaning forced hiatuses on plans for Mars missions, manned exploration did get boost of a not-too-shabby $200 million.

Japan’s powerful plans

While the U.S. is merely studying dust, and China moon formations, company Shimizu Corp. of Japan seeks to build a solar panel belt around the moon as an alternate form of energy. Though the plan is only in early proposal stages, in regards to lunar capabilities, this would be an enormous breakthrough.

The 250 mile solar belt, called “Lunar Ring” would be capable of sending 13,000 terawatts of power to Earth, the Telegraph says – enough to cover all of the planet’s energy needs.

Even so, it looks like we’ll have to wait over 20 years before the face of the moon gets sliced, resulting in a worldwide source of green energy. Given adequate funding, the company, Shimizu, estimates construction could begin by 2035.

Rise of private lunar exploration

Shimizu Corp is a demonstration of space exploration via private companies (instead of government), a trend that will likely determine the future of space travel. For example, U.S. company Golden Spike aims to sell manned lunar trips to nations, individuals, and corporations by 2020.

Another U.S. company called MoonEx aims for 2015 to send a lightweight lander to the Moon. They are one of 25 private companies competing for the Lunar Google X prize, an international challenge worth $20 million.

Until then, however, we’ll give credit where it’s due. A big congratulations to China on their achievements — The Moon needed some new friends.

Updated. Cover image courtesy of Marc Van Nordan via Flickr. 

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Jennifer Markert