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Chang'e lure is proving to be irresistible

China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-01-04 16:16

The moon has been putting on quite a show for the New Year - a super moon you could read a newspaper by on New Year's Eve night - with a grand finale coming in four weeks - a super blue blood moon (total lunar eclipse) all on the same night, Jan 31.

On a clear night the silvery orb does seem to be beckoning, and it looks like China is poised to take the lead in answering the call.

This year China plans to launch its Chang'e 4 mission, as the Guardian reports. It's a two-part project. The first step will be positioning a relay satellite 38,000 miles behind the moon on its dark side sometime around June. The next step will be landing a robotic explorer on the dark side, a place no one has ever been because of the impossibility of communicating through the body.

"The Chinese are pushing back the frontier with such a technically challenging mission," space analyst Brian Harvey, author of China in Space: The Great Leap Forward, told the Guardian.

Looking out at the universe from the far side of the moon is a special point of view because no stray radio waves from Earth cloud the picture. One scientific project from Europe has already signed on to the project - thanks to a word put in by the king of Holland during a trade mission to China.

The Dutch instrument is designed to listen for signals from the so-called "dark ages" of the universe, that is, before there were any stars. It was originally designed for a European Space Agency mission that was scrubbed five years ago.

"China has always made a big play about wanting to do international collaboration," Harvey said.

China has been making a steady lockstep march toward the moon since 2007 with its Chang'e 1 (Chang'e is the name of the Chinese moon goddess), a simple orbiter, Chang'e 2 in 2010, another orbiter that went on to the asteroid belt, and three years later Chang'e 3, the first soft landing on the lunar surface since 1976, which deployed the widely publicized Jade Rabbit rover.

"It is reasonable to presume that China will have its own people on the surface early in the 2030s," Harvey said.

China has been testing the ability for future astronauts to stay on the moon for extended periods, as Beijing has been accelerating its space program and looks to put people on the surface of the moon within the next two decades, Reuters reported.

Xinhua said volunteers would live in a "simulated space cabin" for between 60 to 200 days in 2018 to help scientists understand what will be needed for humans to "remain on the moon in the medium and long terms".

Putting a probe on the dark side of the moon was part of President Xi Jinping's call for China to become a global power in space exploration, including putting astronauts on the surface by 2036.

"While it remains unclear exactly how long China's first lunar explorers will spend on the surface, the country is already planning for longer stays," Xinhua said.

Two groups of four volunteers will live in the simulated cabin "Yuegong-1" to test how a life-support system works in a moonlike environment. A similar 105-day trial was carried out successfully in 2014.

The system, called the Bioregenerative Life Support System (BLSS), allows water and food to be recycled and is key to any Chinese probes to the moon or beyond.

"The latest test is vital to the future of China's moon and Mars missions and must be relied upon to guarantee the safety and health of our astronauts," Liu Zhiheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the news agency.

The Yuegong-1 cabin has a central living space the size of a "very small urban apartment" and two "greenhouses" for plants.

In March, China announced plans to launch a space probe to bring back samples from the moon this year, while the country's first cargo space craft docked with an orbiting space lab in April, a major step as Beijing looks to establish a permanently manned space station by 2022.

Three weeks ago US President Donald Trump used the 45th anniversary of the last time people walked on the moon to sign Space Policy Directive 1, instructing NASA to get astronauts to the moon working with the commercial space industry.

But as Harvey points out, the directive is pretty vague on details. "We're still no more definite about when the Americans will set foot back on the moon," he said.

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