China’s Lunar Ambitions

Jun 4, 2024
China’s Lunar Ambitions

The symbolism, at this moment in time, is not what most believe it to be.

The last few days have been historic in the race to return to the moon. 

Sunday brought a successful landing of China’s Chang’e-6 spacecraft on the far side of the moon, near the lunar south pole.

China Moon Landing
Source: The BBC

China is the only country to have landed on the far side of the moon, and this is the second time. It did so first in 2019.

And this time, the mission was more ambitious.

The Unfurling of the National Flag

Chang’e-6 is equipped with a drill, enabling the spacecraft to collect samples beneath the moon’s surface. It collected about 2 kilograms of material while on the moon, with the goal to return to Earth for analysis.

This mission is no small feat. The far side of the moon is more rugged than the side that faces Earth, making landings more complex. The moon is tidally locked with the Earth, so we’re only ever able to view one side of it directly from Earth.

Because of this, Chang’e-6 needed to land autonomously. And communications with the spacecraft required a second satellite, which acted as a relay from an Earth-ground station to the far side of the moon.

Upon reaching the far side, China then unfurled its national flag and marked its arrival.

China Unfurls Flag on the Moon
Source: China National Space Administration

In the last 24 hours, the spacecraft carrying a metal vacuum container of the lunar material launched and entered lunar orbit, where it will transfer the container to a re-entry spacecraft, which is scheduled to return to Earth and land in Inner Mongolia on June 25th.

The international scientific community would like to believe that the unfurling or planting of a flag on the far side of the moon is nothing more than the symbolic marking of a scientific achievement.

I’m afraid that’s very naïve.

While the significance may not represent outright conquest, or newfound “ownership” of the far side of the moon, it’s meaning is far more than a celebratory lap around a stadium.

The reality is that China already had a fully operational and permanently manned space station — the Tiangong.

China's space station the Tiangong
Source: China Manned Space Engineering

Worth noting is that China’s Tiangong has no international partners. And it has complete control over its ability to get astronauts to and from the Tiangong. It has no external dependencies.

China has also been public about its plans to put astronauts on the moon before 2030. There’s no reason to believe that China won’t be successful. It has the technology to do it now. And that’s precisely why the Chang’e-6 mission is so relevant.

This is a race to discover a single compound, the one that is most critical for establishing a lunar outpost and waystation for deeper manned exploration of our solar system and its riches.


A National Strategy for Expansion

As we explored in Outer Limits — The Resources Behind the Race to the Moon, water isn’t just for sustaining life. 

When broken down into its two constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen, it can be used to make rocket fuel.

This isn’t about some magnanimous scientific mission with widespread international partnership. This is one country, a Communist country, that has been actively expanding its territory and military presence in the South China Sea… and conducting missions to the moon to determine the best location for a lunar outpost.

Also not a coincidence are recent developments at Shanghai-based Lanjian Hongquin Technology Company with its announcement to launch its Honghu-3 constellation of satellites.

We can think of this as China’s answer to the SpaceX Starlink network. Honghu-3 is planned to have a “swarm” of 10,000 satellites. The Honghu-3 constellation is in addition to the national Guowang project, and the G60 Starlink project unrelated to SpaceX. 

The key point to understand is that none of these projects happen without the explicit support and involvement of the central government.

China already has a robust aerospace industry producing rockets capable of getting these satellite into orbit. It doesn’t need SpaceX, or any other western countries’ support to achieve its missions.

And as cautious and careful as Elon Musk is in positioning his companies (mostly Tesla) as being neutral in order to protect his business interests in mainland China, SpaceX’s alignment with the U.S. government is hard to question.

No matter how neutral SpaceX tries to be, its success has become mission critical to NASA.  SpaceX is literally the lifeline for shuttling astronauts and provisions back and forth from the International Space Station, and soon to be the moon.

And the repeated failures of NASA’s Space Launch System and Boeing’s Starliner, which was just scrubbed yet again this weekend due to more problems, makes the dependency on SpaceX that much more obvious.

Musk’s outward support of China’s Taiwan policy, in order to protect his business dealings in mainland China, has resulted in the blocking of SpaceX Starlink business in Taiwan. Taiwan can’t trust the security of the Starlink network as a result, and is partnering with OneWeb and SES for satellite communications services.

What we’re witnessing right now is not purely motivated by science.

What’s happening is a modern space race.

Fueling a Rebirth

Not just to control communications and surveillance in low Earth orbit, but to establish a national presence on the moon and access its resources.

It’s not just about water or rocket fuel either. The moon is an incredible resource for Helium-3, which is very scarce on Earth. There are no terrestrial resources of Helium-3 available. And yet there are an estimated 1.1 million tons of Helium-3 on the moon. This was a topic we explored in Outer Limits — The Cleanest Approach to Nuclear Fusion.

The importance of Helium-3 is as a key fuel source for nuclear fusion reactors. Companies like TAE and Helion are building reactors that will use deuterium-Helium-3 (D-He-3) as a fuel source.

While this latest frenzy to return to the moon may be justified by national interests, national security, or even commercial interests to mine the moon, the impact to the aerospace industry is why we’re so interested.

It’s fueling a rebirth of the entire aerospace industry. With so much money being thrown around, and with a Cold War-like race to the moon, there’s no question about commitment levels. It’s happening right now.

And that opens up the investment funds from venture capitalists, private equity, and the public markets for companies looking to capitalize on this once-in-a-generation trend. 

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