Hong Kong (CNN)As you read this, a spindly-looking silver robot with a satellite dish for a head is exploring places never seen up close before by humans.
The rover touched down Thursday, delivered to the moon by the Chang’e 4 probe, a historical first for humankind — the far side of the moon has not previously been visited — and a major achievement for China’s increasingly impressive space program.
Thursday’s landing is the first time humanity has landed anything on Earth’s natural satellite since 2013. Its success “opened a new chapter in humanity’s exploration of the moon,” China’s National Space Administration said in a statement.
The front page of Friday’s China Daily, a state-run newspaper, featured a large photo of scientists at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center reacting to the touchdown, alongside one of the first images sent back by Chang’e 4 of the moon’s far side.
Reacting on Twitter, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine called it a “first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment!”
China was late to the space race — it didn’t send its first satellite into orbit until 1970, by which time the US had already landed an astronaut on the moon — but it has been catching up fast.
Since 2003, China has sent six crews into space and launched two space labs into Earth’s orbit. In 2013, it successfully landed a rover — Yutu 1 — on the moon, becoming only the third country to do so.
While the reaction to Thursday’s landing in China — where economic concerns are becoming increasingly pressing amid an ongoing trade war with the US — was more limited than for the previous lunar mission, the success of Chang’e 4, and the global acclaim it has brought, will be a significant boost to the Chinese space program.
That program will need all the support it can get in coming years as it attempts to realize ambitions that are, appropriately, stratospheric.
NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao on China’s space program
Dreams of space
Speaking to astronauts aboard the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft by video link in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping said “the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger.”
“The Chinese people will take bigger strides to explore further into the space,” he added.
Under Xi’s leadership, China has invested billions in building up its space program, even as it asserted its influence back on Earth more aggressively and pursued the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
The first stage of China’s space dream largely takes place in our planetary neighborhood.
In 2020, the next lunar mission, Chang’e 5, is due to land on the moon, collect samples and return to Earth, while preliminary plans are underway for a manned lunar mission in the 2030s. If successful, China would become only the second country, after the US, to put a citizen on the moon.
One achievement could see China leapfrog the US, however, and make history in the progress: landing an astronaut on Mars.
Chinese space lab burns up falling back to Earth
Speaking to state TV after Thursday’s lunar landing, Wu Weiren, the mission’s chief designer, said it was “human nature to explore the unknown world.”
Since 1972, that exploration has largely been carried out by robots. Not since Gene Cernan climbed on board the Apollo 17 lunar module to return to Earth has humanity stepped foot on anything outside our planet.
There is a very good reason for this. Robots are cheaper and longer lasting, and can carry out the same observations and experiments as a human astronaut. Most importantly, they don’t die — no one wants to be the first country to leave a corpse on the moon.
This isn’t to say the manned lunar missions were useless — they provided key information on how humans can survive in space, as well as potential dangers and challenges, which helped lead to significant scientific advancements.
On Thursday, NASA administrator Bridenstine — who was nominated by Trump — responded to a CNN report quoting Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the US Naval War College, saying the “odds of the next voice transmission from the moon being in Mandarin are high.”
In near orbit too, China could soon be leading the way. While its space station is due to launch in coming years, the International Space Station (ISS) is facing a funding squeeze that could see it decommissioned by 2025.
Christmas on the moon, 50 years ago
China’s space program is about more than just bragging rights for Beijing.
The moon plays host to a wealth of mineral resources, including rare earth metals (REM) used in smartphones and other modern electronics. China already dominates the global supply of REM, and exclusive access to the moon’s supply could provide huge economic advantages.
In addition to REM, the moon also possesses a large amount of Helium-3, a rare element which can be used for nuclear fusion. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), “it is thought that this isotope could provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor, since it is not radioactive and would not produce dangerous waste products.”
Ouyang Ziyang, a prominent Chinese space scientist and one of the drivers of its lunar program, has long advocated for Helium-3 mining as a reason for moon missions.
“Each year three space shuttle missions could bring enough fuel for all human beings across the world,” he told state media in 2006.
Ultimately, according to Namrata Goswami of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, China wants to “establish alternative institutions, investment mechanisms, and capacities that not only challenge US dominance in space but establish a China-led space order.”