28 October 2016
China plans to send the Chang'e-4 probe to the dark side of the Moon in 2018. Photo: Internet
China plans to send the Chang'e-4 probe to the dark side of the Moon in 2018. Photo: Internet

Showdown on the moon

China, Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA) each have plans to build a moon base — with permanent structures where humans can live and work.

NASA, meanwhile, has long set its sights on Mars, but recent talk about a low-cost lunar outpost might put the Moon back on the American space agency’s agenda.

Chinese taikonauts will likely beat NASA astronauts back to the lunar surface in as little as five to 10 years, longtime lunar scientist and geologist Paul Spudis told Forbes.

Of course, that doesn’t preclude Russia, the ESA, or numerous commercial space ventures — who have all expressed a desire to return astronauts to the lunar surface — from getting there sooner.

That said, China is the first to officially begin a new round of lunar exploration and will send the Chang’e-4 probe to the dark side of the Moon in 2018.

The mission, according to a preliminary report to the United Nations Office for Outerspace Affairs, will be unmanned, with state-run news agency Xinhua saying the probe will be a stepping stone to having a manned lunar base on the surface.

The dark side is so-called because it always faces away from Earth due to gravitational forces, with the “dark” in the name historically imputing that we can’t see or understand it, rather than it actually being physically dark, according to Science Alert.

Chang’e-4 will be the first mission in human history to embark on this expedition, Liu Jizhong, chief of the lunar exploration center for China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), told Xinhua.

“The Chang’e-4′s lander and rover will make a soft landing on the back side of the Moon, and will carry out in-place and patrolling surveys,” said Liu.

China’s swiftly developing space program initially replicated feats already achieved by the US and others, but this latest mission provides growing evidence that in recent years the nation has become serious about setting records of its own, noted Science Alert.

While China has not yet served up an official description of its moon base, Bernard H. Foing, a French scientist at the ESA and executive director of International Lunar Exploration Working Group, was able to make an educated guess at a recent Global Lunar Conference in Beijing.

The first lunar base will be constructed underground and will include a biological experiment module, research module and training center module, said Foing.

“There will be a round dome inside, from which we could see that the blue earth is running in the universe with a great view of the midnight sun,” he said.

The base will also be equipped with an emergency underground shelter and workers would have individual working and sleeping units.

According to Liu from SASTIND, Chang’e-4′s goals will include studying geological conditions on the Moon’s surface, but advancing China’s space program is an important goal in and of itself.

According to AFP, Chinese state media quoted science official Qian Yan as saying that space flight is “an important manifestation of overall national strength”.

And that every successful mission “greatly stimulated the public’s … pride in the achievements of the motherland’s development”.

Likewise, a NASA moon base would be a great source of national pride, while providing an official US government presence.

Enter NASA’s notion of a low-cost lunar settlement — a small moon base at one of the lunar poles, operationally modeled on the US Antarctic Station at the South Pole.

With a crew of about 10 people rotating in and out three times a year, think of it as a slightly larger ISS or expandable, inflatable modules plopped down on the surface of the Moon, costing as little as US$3-4 billion per year instead of tens of billions or more for something bigger and more plush in a better postal code.

If built, several Earth-bound technologies would be utilized to drive down the cost and keep the base relatively self-sufficient, said Popular Mechanics.

That includes electric cars, 3D printers, ample recycling, and other ways to use resources available on the Moon, whether that’s moon rocks or sunlight for solar power.

Alas, while it all sounds great, the reality of an American moon base is contingent upon the administration change coming this fall.

Russia has also announced that human presence on the Moon is a key part of its strategic space goals; it plans on putting cosmonaut boots on the ground in 2040.

The ESA, meanwhile, plans on building a “moon village” — made by huge 3D printers — with construction beginning in as few as five years.

“The ESA space-exploration strategy sets the Moon as a priority destination for humans on the way to Mars,” NASA’s Kathy Laurini told Leonard David at

“The timing is right to get started on the capabilities which allow Europe to meet its exploration objectives and ensure it remains a strong partner as humans begin to explore the Solar System,” she told Science Alert.

NASA in particular has a vested interest in seeing this happen, as the Moon has been designated the most strategic pitstop for a manned mission to Mars, with MIT scientists calculating that astronauts could launch from Earth with up to 68 percent less mass if they collected most of their heavy liquid fuel from a Moon base on the way.

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