Construction work on a moonbase could begin within the next decade as China reveals its timeline for future missions to the lunar surface.
Zhang Kejian, the administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), announced the plans in a recent speech.
The research facility will be located near the moon’s ice-rich south pole and will be shared with multiple countries, Mr Zhang said.
Ice will be needed on the moon to provide water for both human consumption and as a component for rocket fuel.
The small step of a lunar base could serve not only as a platform for research but also as a refuelling station for giant leaps out into the solar system.
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The announcement of China’s timeline for space exploration follows its first soft landing of a spacecraft, Chang’e-4 (pictured), on the far side of the moon, back in January of this year
‘Building a lunar base will accumulate experience for an eventual landing on the moon and serve as a stopover as we fly to Mars,’ the state-run Beijing News reported.
The reveal of the space program timeline came on both China’s National Space Day and the 46th anniversary of the launch of the country’s first artificial satellite, Dongfanghong, in 1970.
The announcement follows China’s first soft landing of a spacecraft, Chang’e-4, on the far side of the moon, back in January of this year.
The joint lander and rover mission — the first to set out to explore the far side of the moon — has been analysing the chemistry of the rocks on the far side for comparison with samples taken from the Earth-facing side of the moon.
Objectives of the lander and rover mission — the first-ever to target exploration of the moon’s far side — include analysing chemical differences between the Earth-facing side of the moon and the mission’s target area.
The rover can only act at night, as temperatures at the landing sight reach 390°F (200°C) during the day, forcing the rover into short periods of hibernation.
‘China had talked previously about their lunar intentions so it’s exciting if they have at last set out a time frame,’ Chinese-American former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao told The Times.
‘It’s an aggressive timeline, but not impossible,’ he added.
‘The architecture now being developed is more about building sustainable infrastructure to keep a human presence there.’
China’s planned lunar base is likely to be constructed near the moon’s south pole, a region which is also the target of intended future US manned space mission.
This part of the moon is rich in ice that can found inside of permanently shadowed craters.
The whole region has been comprehensively mapped out by NASA’s robotic Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
China’s planned lunar base is to be constructed near the moon’s south pole (shown at the bottom of this image of the dark side of the moon, which was reconstructed from data taken by NASA’s Clementine spacecraft)
A reliable water supply will be essential to future manned lunar missions, as is required for both human life support and also the production of rocket fuel.
This fact will position the moon as a key pit-stop for future manned craft en-route to Mars and further out into space.
Support for space exploration has been growing among the Chinese population.
President Xi Jinping is reportedly hopeful that future space missions will foster growth in Chinese aviation, robotics and artificial intelligence research, with a strong space programme being core to his ongoing ‘national revival’ programme.
In the more immediate future, Beijing will be sending another spacecraft to the moon later this year, in December.
The probe will collect and return samples of moon rock for analysis and display back on the Earth, Mr Zhang said.
Chang’e-4’s lunar rover, Yutu 2, is the first to explore the dark side of the moon (pictured)
Of course, China is not the only country reaching out towards the stars.
Russia also is planning a habitable lunar base, albeit on a longer timeline, with construction intended to begin after the year 2035.
In addition, the Trump administration in the US has announced a 2024 deadline for landing US astronauts back on the moon — although it is presently unclear how this will be congressional funded and exactly what form such a mission would take.
Despite US vice-president Mike Pence has recently portrayed America and China competition in a global space race, NASA and CNSA heads are keen on collaborative efforts where permitted within the confines of national legislation.
‘We put humans on the Moon in 1969, so I think that race is over,’ NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told The Space Review last month.
‘We want to take advantage of all of these different partnerships. I think it’s part of American leadership,’ he added.
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF CHINESE SPACE EXPLORATION?
Officials from the Chinese space agency have said the country will return to the moon by the end of 2019 with the Chang’e-5 mission.
This will collect rocks from the near side of the moon and return them to Earth for further study.
Chang’e-6 will be the first mission to explore the south pole of the moon.
Chang’e-7 will study the land surface, composition, space environment in a comprehensive mission, it was claimed, while Chang’e-8 will focus on technical surface analysis.
China is also reportedly working on building a lunar base using 3D printing technology.
Mission number eight will likely lay the groundwork for this as it strives to verify the technology earmarked for the project and if it is viable as a scientific base.
China’s space agency the China National Space Administration (CNSA) also say they want to travel to mars by 2020.