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by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Dec 14, 2013
The successful landing of China's Chang'e-3 spacecraft on the Moon is significant for several reasons. This is China's first landing on another heavenly body, and represents an important step forward for their space program. It's also the first object to safely land on the Moon in 36 years, breaking a mission drought that has gone longer than most analysts would have expected.
Like the launch of India's first Mars mission a few weeks ago, the landing of Chang'e-3 also serves as a wake-up call to the world at large. China's space program cannot be ignored or dismissed as a half-hearted effort. China has scored again, and has demonstrated the ability to keep scoring.
This may be China's first lunar landing, but it's hardly a modest try. The Chang'e-3 spacecraft is large, complex and very capable. The rover it carries is the most sophisticated robot ever to operate on the surface of the Moon. The mission will perform scientific experiments that have never been previously attempted on the Moon. The scientific returns will be bountiful.
It's only fair and accurate that the world should pay more attention to China's steadily advancing capabilities in spaceflight. But the reaction to this mission must also be kept in perspective.
This analyst has long suggested that China is steadily developing the technologies to send astronauts to the Moon, and will launch such a mission at some time in the future. But don't hold your breath. Chinese astronauts will not land on the Moon any time soon. A decade from now, they still won't be there. And nobody really knows how long it will take.
The spacecraft used in this mission is another step forward in working towards this ultimate goal. It has demonstrated the basic technologies and capabilities that could be incorporated into a future Chinese astronaut lander.
But there's still a lot of work to do before China can even contemplate such a mission. In any case, China's astronauts will be busy over the next few years flying to a new space laboratory, then a new Chinese Space Station that will appear with the turn of the decade.
The landing of Chang'e-3 is the first in a sequence of four robot lunar landings that China has officially announced. Another rover-carrying mission is next. Later, China will launch two missions to retrieve samples of lunar rocks and return them to Earth. These missions should all be completed over the course of this decade.
As China develops more capabilities in spaceflight, the stage will eventually be set for a human lunar program. China may decide to send astronauts on circumlunar flights that will take them around the Moon without landing.
Eventually, the footpads and rover tracks left by China's robot spacecraft will be joined by human footprints. Naysayers and critics of China's ambitions would do well to inspect the logo of the China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), which has operated all of China's three robot lunar missions to date.
The CLEP logo features the Chinese picrographic character for "Moon" tweaked with a dragon's head and peace doves. It also features another graphic at its very centre: Two human fooprints in space boots. The long-term goal of this first landing is graphically clear.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has covered the various Asian space programs for SpaceDaily.com since 1999. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.
China National Space Administration
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