China’s new moon rover Yutu, or the “Jade Rabbit,” is now making tracks on the Moon’s surface. The rover detached from the Chang’e 3 space probe to make China only the third country to soft-land on the Moon behind the U.S. and Russia. While China’s landing has started to stir the tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, it has also raised many big questions about China’s real motives for undertaking a mission to the moon 37 years after the last lunar soft-landing.
What is being said by the conspiracy theorists?
Conspiracy theorists didn’t take long to say that China just faked another Moon landing. Some even joked about it, but the evidence that all moon landings did occur is insurmountable. New Zealand’s Conservative Party leader, Colin Craig, is one such non-believer. The politician says he doesn’t have a belief, he just doesn’t want to judge without the facts. However, there are actually a lot of facts that no one can ignore.
Photographs have been taken by Japan, China and India which prove that man has been to the Moon. Right here from Earth, reflectors left on the moon’s surface can be seen. If Craig and the other non-believers, along with conspiracy theorists, spent less money on their tin foil hats and more on telescopes, they could prove the landings true for themselves.
Apart from the sentiments of all the out-of-this-world non-believers, China’s lunar landing does raise a lot of big questions.
So what is China’s real motive for landing on the Moon 37 years after the last lunar soft-landing?
Yutu is a modern robotic prospector and will be searching the moon for resources for the next three months. It is carrying ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and as long as the rover is moving it is gathering data from the GPR. It’s likely that Yutu is busy studying and mapping individual basaltic flows in hopes of identifying regoliths or paleoregoliths. These are the layers that exist in the Moon’s uppermost 330 feet of surface. The robot is not designed to access these layers, but it is equipped to seek out and detect them.
What can China be interested in mining?
According to Jack Schmitt, professional geologist and former Apollo 17 moonwalker, they are searching for Helium-3. Schmitt made this known in his book, Return to the Moon – Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space. Helium-3 is extremely rare on Earth and China has shown interest in mining lunar Helium-3 for use in energizing nuclear fusion reactors.
While the world’s scientists are still combing over moon data gathered in the 60’s and the 70’s, China is gathering modern data with Yutu in an area of the moon that man currently knows very little about.
Another big question raised by China’s Moon landing is, what else is in it for China?
It is clear that China is not only flexing their geopolitical arm by making this lunar landing a global statement of their country’s capabilities and success, but they are also testing some of the hardware they plan to use in the future.
First, their technology used for the soft-landing. The Chang’e 3 fell from a distance of 15 kilometers at a speed of 1.7 kilometers per second, hovered at 100 meters above the lunar surface to assess a suitable landing spot, and then reassessed at 30 meters before setting down in a perfect spot.
Second, the technology for a complete lunar landing system is also being tested. This is the same technology that China will likely use in future missions. The lander is capable of carrying 3,750 pounds, yet Yutu weighed in at only 310 pounds. This alone speaks toward China possibly having a much wider potential ahead for the technology which could entail larger payloads as well. So far the experts are only able to speculate regarding what China will be deploying on the moon in the future.
At a time that the U.S. Congress keeps cutting funding to NASA, who is behind the funding of China’s space program?
In the U.S., the civilian space programs are kept separate from military space programs. This is not the case in China. China’s space program is run by the People’s Liberation Army. Information regarding how much China spends on their space programs is a closely guarded secret.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently stated that the space program is China’s dream and a vision for China’s future that includes rivaling the U.S. as a technological and military superpower.
This certainly is of a major concern to U.S. defense officials and analysts. Especially since the lack of China’s transparency has potential for their space program to contribute to their ever-growing military capabilities. Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess Jr. is the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. During his U.S. Senate testimony last year, he stated that China’s space program and extensive civil projects will support their growing ability to deny or degrade the assets of potential adversaries and it enhances their conventional military capabilities.
Yet other Chinese officials state their space program is one of peace and they are open to collaboration with other nations.
How advanced is China’s space program exactly?
China put an astronaut in space in the year 2003, making it only the third country to do so behind the U.S. and Russia. A lot of other nations have had astronauts in space, but unlike the big three (U.S., China, and Russia) they were not able to accomplish the feat independently.
In 2006, they sent their first probe to the moon. Of course now after the Chang’e 3’s success, China will be continuing other efforts on the moon, but they also have plans for Mars exploration as well as building their own smaller Earth-orbiting space station around the year 2020. China’s space station will be able to sustain human habitation for extended periods of time. This just so happens to be the same year that the International Space Station (ISS) is planned to be decommissioned.
The ISS has been manned by astronauts from over 15 countries, but China is currently in the group of countries that are not allowed to use the ISS.
In 2012, China was successful in their first manned space-docking mission. The Tiangong-1 space lab was docked with the Shenzhou-8 capsule numerous times. The Shenzhou-9 mission also included China’s first female astronaut.
Will China eventually share their lunar findings with the rest of the world?
This will remain to be seen as nobody actually knows at this point, but it’s highly unlikely. If this ever occurs it is likely that China will only share data that it has already deemed safe for other nations to utilize. What also makes this very doubtful is that U.S. Congress passed legislation in 2011 that stops any bilateral contact with China, however multilateral contacts are not proscribed.
So, if China mines the Moon for resources, do they own the rights to the minerals? Who actually owns the Moon?
The laws governing space were put together under the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs and guided by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The Treaty’s focus is on peace and bars any national appropriation of the celestial objects, which of course, includes the moon and essentially all planets and the entire universe.
In the Outer Space Treaty, it states that any exploration and use of space will be for the benefit and interest of all countries and shall be considered to be the province of all mankind. Outer space is designated to be free for use and exploration and will not have any national claim of sovereignty to its appropriation. The Treaty also states that any nuclear weapons or any weapons of mass destruction cannot be placed in orbit or on any celestial bodies. Any use of the moon or other celestial bodies will be exclusively for peaceful purposes only. Damage caused to the moon and any celestial bodies are the responsibility of those that caused the damage.
To sum up the Treaty, no country can claim any celestial body as its own for any use or occupation. All celestial bodies, including the moon, belong to the entire mankind of Earth and everyone is to share in the exploration and wealth that any space program brings.
Yes, the Outer Space Treaty is likely in need of a revision, such as governing the inclusion of private and commercial firms that have plans for space tourism and mining.
How much damage will space mining the Moon cause and if the damage is not repaired, what are the recourses?
This question will remain to be answered after actual mining occurs, if it ever occurs. UN sanctions seem to be the only recourse if the damage is not repaired. Somehow this doesn’t seem to be harsh enough penalty for damaging something as important as the moon. Since the first human walked on Earth, the moon has been, and will continue to be, extremely important for all mankind.
What comes after China’s Moon landing and what their bigger motives are is something that will all remain to be seen in the future. However, with every foot that Yutu travels, the “Jade Rabbit” seems to raise more dust to blur the answers of some very big and concerning questions.
Opinion by Brent Matsalla