Hours after settling on the surface of the moon, the Chinese lander lowered a ramp and the Jade Rabbit rover trundled away on a three-month mission to explore the Bay of Rainbows, a lava field regarded as one of the most beautiful features on Earth's natural satellite.
The touchdown last weekend marked the first soft landing on the moon in more than 30 years, and the first excursion of a lunar rover in more than 40. The feat was captured by an onboard camera and swiftly broadcast by Chinese state media. The message was clear:
The moon landing is only the latest success for an ambitious space programme that plans a space station in orbit in 2020 and a manned lunar base, paving the way for crewed missions to Mars and beyond. This year, three Chinese taikonauts docked with a prototype space lab and spent two weeks in orbit.
The rapid rise of Chinese spacefaring does not amount to a new space race, but countries across
Space is a game that everyone wants to play. More than 25 countries have astronauts and twice as many operate satellites. The benefits are many. Space technology means better communications and navigation systems; the ability to watch yours and other countries, and, of course, scientific missions. The work attracts scientists and engineers and the technologies they develop make money.
Then there is human spaceflight - seen as folly and a waste of money by some academics, including
"What is interesting about Jade Rabbit is not so much the soft landing, but what it all implies. If you can land on the moon where you intended to land, that means in five years you are going to see far more accurate nuclear missiles. If you can rendezvous in orbit, that means a greater anti-satellite capability. Countries look at space as a measure of power, and bound up in that is prestige," said
But of all the reasons to fling people into space, none is greater than politics. When the US space station programme was created in the 80s, it was intended as an anti-Soviet alliance of western nations, that brought
So what are today's political motives? With the US increasingly dependent on space economically and militarily, the imperative is to keep space a calm place. One way to do that is to ensure
So far though, many nations are going it alone.
Moltz said: "
Tensions in the region underlie much of Asian spacefaring. North and
Ironically, the US could lose its leadership in space by pushing so far ahead it leaves the rest behind. Obama scrapped Bush plans to return to the moon, and instead set a goal to land an astronaut on an asteroid, then push on to Mars.
Sheldon said: "If the US pulls out early,
"If China goes up there and starts mining, will the US want to go back, or will it still see it as 'been there, done that'?" said
Moltz said: "Countries with lunar aims would be well-served to begin talking about consensual guidelines for settling the moon and engaging in mining and other commercial activities, if they want to avoid future conflicts."
Where would that leave
"We got a lot out of the last space race, but for the 21st century we want a more positive, collaborative model. Competition is good up to a point, but really intense national rivalries between
21st century travellers
Top: Chinese astronauts with capsule after landing in
Main photograph: ChinaFotoPress/
Most Popular Stories
- SoCalGas Reaches Record Spend on Diversity Suppliers
- Senate Dems Pull All-Nighter on Global Warming
- Senators Reach Deal on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac
- GM Recall Poses First Major Test for New CEO
- El Empleo Rebota: La Columna Cohen
- Job Openings Less Than Expected in January
- Bob Crow Remembered as Shrewd Champion of Union Workers
- Dianne Feinstein Accuses CIA of Spying on Congress
- Deborah Hersman Quits NTSB
- Swedish Journalist Nils Horner Shot Dead in Kabul