To Counter NASA’s $100 Billion Artemis Program, China Advances Its Low-Cost Lunar Base Mission By Eight Years

China has taken a giant leap forward in one of its most ambitious space programs. It has advanced its future lunar base plan by eight years.

China and Russia presented a detailed plan for a joint lunar base called the International Lunar Research Station, in June 2021, challenging a similar plan by the US.

On December 27, Chinese space officials revealed a revised completion date for the unmanned lunar base. It aims to set up the facility by around 2027, previously scheduled for 2035.

A conceptual impression of a Chinese lunar base. Photo: China Academy of Space Technology

China’s Chang’e 8 moon landing mission was originally planned for the late 2020s. The Chang’e 8’s new mission, according to Wu Yanhua, deputy head of the China National Space Administration, is to place an unmanned research station on the moon by 2027.

He did not elaborate on the reason for the change in plans, but emphasized that the mission’s goal was to “build a solid framework for the peaceful utilization of lunar resources”.

US’ Artemis Vs Sino-Russian Project

Whether it was on purpose or not, China and Russia have created a coalition against NASA’s Artemis Alliance, which includes a number of countries and US commercial spaceflight contractors. it appears that two rivals’ return-to-the-moon initiatives are currently underway. 

The US administration under President Joe Biden has also endorsed the Trump-era Artemis program. 

In 2019, then-US Vice-President President Mike Pence called to recreate the 1960s’ Cold War space race, in which the US beat the erstwhile Soviet Union to land on the moon’s surface. This time, America’s rival China was attempting to “seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s spacefaring nation”, Pence had said.

Chinese space officials frequently stated that they were not interested in a race like the one that occurred during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. However, some scientists involved in the development of the future moon mission believe that Chinese policymakers’ perspective has shifted as a result of a recent US move. 

Following the success of Chang’e 5 mission, which brought lunar samples to Earth, China’s manned space program’s deputy chief designer, Zhang Chongfeng, criticized the US for pursuing an ‘Enclosure Movement’ on the moon.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, British aristocrats waged an “Enclosure Movement” campaign to take land that had previously been owned in common by all residents of a village. The Chinese authorities believed that NASA’s Artemis program, which is a successor to the Apollo program, would follow something like the ‘Enclosure Movement’ on the Moon.

Lunar outpost (NASA) - Wikipedia
Concept art from NASA showing astronauts entering a lunar outpost. (2006)

The US Artemis program aimed to send humans back to the moon by 2024, following in the footsteps of the Apollo mission. However, the new program sought to keep the astronauts on the moon as well as build some large-scale facilities in its orbit and on its surface. 

The Artemis Accords include a set of rules proposed by the US government and its space agency NASA for future lunar activities. The accords, which have already been signed by more than a dozen US allies, authorize governments or private firms to secure their installations or “heritage sites” by establishing safety zones that prevent anyone from entering, The EurAsian Times reported. 

Artist impression of activities in a Moon Base. Credit: ESA

According to Zhang, China and Russia condemn the accords since this contradicts current international protocols, such as the UN’s Moon Agreement, which declares that the moon belongs to the entire human species, not just one party.  

However, in order to effectively rival the US on the moon, China would need to “take some forward-looking measures and deploy them ahead of schedule”, he wrote in a paper published in the Chinese peer-reviewed journal Aerospace Shanghai in June. He went on to say that the Chang’e program, which is named after the Chinese moon goddess, intends to overcome Artemis by exposing its flaws.

How China Plans To Take On The US?

Artemis is a rather complicated program and necessitates the construction of a station in the lunar orbit comparable to the International Space Station, at a cost of $100 billion by 2025. NASA chief inspector recently cautioned that the first landing could be delayed due to technological and other hurdles. 

China, on the other hand, is taking a simpler approach. Beijing intends to establish a nuclear-powered research station on the moon instead of an orbiting “gateway”. The facility will enable the Chinese astronauts to spend as much time on the moon as their American counterparts, but for a fraction of the expense. 

China would also employ a mobile station to challenge US territorial claims. This moon base on wheels would be able to travel over 1,000 kilometers across the lunar surface, and the adoption of artificial intelligence technology would eliminate the need for astronauts to operate it.

Moreover, unlike the American effort, which focuses on surface activities, China would place a strong emphasis on cave exploration, which might provide a natural haven for permanent habitation in the future. According to Chinese scientists’ analysis of the most recent lunar samples, there were many more volcanic events on the moon than previously thought.

Researchers used data from past Chang’e expeditions to identify more than 10 holes on the moon that could link to subsurface chambers caused by volcanic eruptions. According to Zhang and his colleagues, these locations will be the focus of China’s future robotic and manned lunar missions. Chinese scientists believe that the country will be able to institute a leading position on the moon with cooperation from countries such as Russia.

China is also attempting to overcome the issue of restricted energy supply and transportation in space. The EurAsian Times had earlier reported that Chinese scientists are now working on a powerful nuclear reactor for their moon and Mars missions, claiming that it will be 100 times more powerful than the device that NASA plans to set up on the moon’s surface by 2030.

A super-heavy rocket is also being developed with the capacity to lift 150 tonnes of payload into orbit. Additionally, China is working on a hypersonic plane that can reach space and land at an airport and is driven by air-breathing and rocket engines. According to scientists working on the project, this plane may be manufactured for less money than SpaceX’s Starship. 

Rare earth minerals, platinum-group metals, and industrial metals such as titanium, iron, and aluminum are among the numerous resources found on the moon. Helium-3, an isotope present in lunar soil, could be used to power future fusion reactors. Both sides are aiming to exploit a mineral resource over a longer period of time, and China’s latest move could be motivated by a desire to keep up with the United States in the space race.