China could box US out of its new space station. Image: Facebook

It has been a terrible month for viral infection, but an exciting month for the exploration of outer space.

On December 1, the lander-ascender module of China’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft separated from the orbiter-re-entry module and landed on the surface of the Moon to collect about two kilograms of ground material. On December 3, the ascender returned to the orbiter. The samples are now on their way back to Earth.

Chang’e-5 was launched on November 24 on a 23-day round trip to the Moon, which on average is 385,000 kilometers from Earth. Its re-entry capsule is expected to land in North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on December 16.  

Almost simultaneously, Japan’s Hayabusa2 space probe returned from the asteroid Ryugu, dropped off its sample capsule and headed out for another asteroid. The sample capsule was found intact in the South Australian desert on December 6.

The 5.2 billion kilometer round trip to Ryugu took six years and three days as Hayabusa2 had to intercept the asteroid’s orbit, which takes it from just inside the orbit of Earth to just outside the orbit of Mars in a year of 474 days.

Ryugu is less than one kilometer across, a target that Japanese TV news likened to aiming for the eye of a needle in Rio de Janeiro with a thread launched from Tokyo. When Hayabusa2 arrived to deploy its rovers, Ryugu was about 350 million km from Earth.

As its name suggests, Hayabusa2 is Japan’s second asteroid probe. The first Hayabusa was launched in 2003, landed on the asteroid Itokawa in 2005 to collect samples and returned to Earth in 2010. It also came down in Australia, where Japan works closely with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Woomera Test Range.

The Chang’e-5 and Hayabusa2 missions are both impressive feats of engineering and navigation, and both generated high levels of interest among professionals and excitement in the general public.

But while Japan’s space program is at the cutting edge of space exploration, China’s is still catching up with that of the Soviet Union.

Let’s review the timelines:

Highlights of the Soviet space program:

  • 1961  First man to orbit the Earth (Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1)
  • 1966  First probes to make a soft landing on and to orbit the Moon (Luna 9 and 10)
  • 1970  First samples returned to Earth from the Moon (Luna 16)
    • First robotic space rover (Lunokhod 1 on the Moon)
    • First soft landing on and data transmission from Venus (Venera 7)
  • 1971   First space station (Salyut 1)       
    • First probe to land on Mars (Mars 3)
  • 1986  First permanently crewed space station (Mir)

Highlights of China’s space program:

  • 1970   Fifth country to send a satellite into orbit after the Soviet Union, the US, France and Japan (Dong Fang Hong 1)
  • 2003   Third country after the USSR and the US to send a man into space with its own rocket (Yang Liwei on Shenzhou-5)
  • 2007   First Chinese spacecraft orbits the Moon (Chang’e-1)
  • 2011   China launches its first space lab (Tiangong-1)
  • 2013   China becomes the third country after the USSR and the US to land on the Moon (Chang’e-3, with Yufu rover)
  • 2016   Second space lab launched to test technologies for a modular space station (Tiangong-2)
  • 2017   Cargo spacecraft launched (Tianzhou-1)
  • 2019   First spacecraft to land on the far side of the moon (Chang’e-4, with Yufu-2 rover)
  • 2020   China launches its first probe to Mars, including a lander and rover (Tianwen-1)
    • Chang’e-5 collects samples on the Moon for return to Earth
This combination of two pictures shows an illustration (top) and a photo (bottom) of the ascender of China’s Chang’e-5 lunar probe completing rendezvous and docking with the orbiter-returner combination. Photo: AFP/China National Space Administration/CNS

The Chinese space program has momentum and is very ambitious. China’s plans for the coming decade include building a modular, inhabited space station (Tianhe), launching an asteroid exploration mission (ZhengHe), sending a sample-return mission to Mars and building first a robotic and then an inhabited base on the Moon.

The following missions are planned as preparation for the establishment of a Chinese base near the Moon’s south pole:

  • Chang’e-6     Expected to launch in 2023 or 2024, to investigate the topography, composition and subsurface structure of a proposed landing site and take samples
  • Chang’e 7      Expected to launch in 2023, to explore the southern polar region of the Moon for resources
  • Chang’e-8     Expected to launch in 2027, to verify the utilization and development of lunar natural resources and to test technology required for the construction of the planned base

It took some time for the Russian space program to recover after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it should not be forgotten that between the last flight of the Space Shuttle in 2011 and the flight of the SpaceX Falcon 9/Crew Dragon last summer, Soyuz rockets were the only way of transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

Soviet/Russian Soyuz rockets are the most frequently used space launch vehicles in history, with more than 1,700 flights since 1966. And Russia is also planning a mission to the south pole of the Moon in 2021 (Luna-25).

Japan has focused on scientific satellites and space probes, and regular cargo missions to supply the International Space Station, where it has its own experimental module (KIBO). With its close relationship with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Japan has no plans or need for its own space station.

As a highly respected international partner with advanced science and technologies of its own, Japan is likely to join the US-led Lunar Platform Orbiting Gateway project, which aims to put a crewed space station into orbit around the Moon.

The Gateway, scheduled to be built between 2023 and 2026, is intended to be a science laboratory, a rendezvous point and mission control center for operations on the Moon, and a stepping stone for voyages to Mars and beyond.

Highlights of Japan’s space program:

  • 1970   First satellite launched (OHSUMI)
  • 1971   First scientific satellite launched to observe solar radio emissions, cosmic rays and the ionosphere (SHINSEI)
  • 1975   Engineering testing satellite launched (KIKU)
  • 1985   Two space probes (SAKIGAKE and SUISEI) launched to Haley’s comet for close observation together with spacecraft from the US, Europe and the Soviet Union
This handout photograph released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on December 15, 2020, shows samples of surface dust and pristine material collected from the asteroid Ryugu by the Hayabusa-2 space probe, at the JAXA Sagamihara Campus in Sagamihara, Kanagawa prefecture. Photo: AFP

Since then, Japan has launched numerous scientific satellites and space probes dedicated to X-ray astronomy, observation of the northern lights, lunar swing-bys, solar observation, VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) by radio telescope, interorbital laser communications, observation of water, greenhouse gases and climate change on Earth, global positioning and other purposes.

More recent Japanese launches include:

  • 2003   First probe to land on an asteroid and take samples (HAYABUSA)
  • 2010   Venus Climate Orbiter (AKATSUKI) launched to study the Venusian atmosphere
    • First demonstration of solar sail in interplanetary space (IKAROS)
  • 2014   Second probe to land on an asteroid and take samples (HAYABUSA2)
  • 2017   Global Change Observation Mission – Climate (SHIKISAI)
  • 2020   Launch of the [United Arab] Emirates Mars Mission (HOPE)

Also, in 2018, Japan’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MIO) was launched by Arianespace together with the ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) as part of mission BepiColombo.

Japan’s unmanned cargo spacecraft (KOUNOTORI) have supplied the International Space Station nine times since 2009. KOUNOTORI will be succeeded by a new vehicle (HTV-X) in 2021.

The next big project on Japan’s space launch schedule is the Martian Moon eXploration Mission (MMX), which is scheduled for 2024.

None of this is intended to denigrate China’s space program, which has made great progress in recent years and will almost certainly continue to do so. But Paul Kallender, senior researcher at the Keio Research Institute at Shonan Fujisawa Campus and an expert on Japan’s aerospace and defense policy, points out that the Japanese and, of course, the American space programs, are currently “an order of magnitude more sophisticated:”

In terms of just about everything – orbital dynamics, proximity maneuvering, onboard robotics, missions systems engineering – Japan has been there, done that. Put it like this: Japan could have done this moon mission [Chang’e-5] 15 years ago, and, indeed, had planned to do something similar. Instead of the moon, Hayabusa 1 picked up samples from the asteroid Itokawa.

But there is nothing like global strategic competition to generate enthusiasm for space programs among politicians who are usually reluctant to put up the money. In this regard, all proponents of space exploration should thank the Chinese for their ambition and their growing capabilities.

Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.