China takes its place in space with Chang'e-3 and Jade Rabbit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 3:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 3:45am

The world long ago sat up and took notice of China's rapid rise as a space power. Patriotic pride in its achievements spread to the worldwide Chinese diaspora. But nothing compares with the scientific and technological significance of the landing on the moon at 9.12 on Saturday night. The Chang'e-3 space probe carried the exploration rover Yutu - or Jade Rabbit - named after the mythical goddess of the moon and her pet rabbit, respectively.

It was more than an incremental step in the mission of catching up and becoming an equal in space with the Soviet Union, which landed a probe in 1966, or the US, which put men on the moon in 1969. China managed a perfect soft landing on the moon at its first attempt. The Americans crashed three spacecraft before they perfected the technique, and the Russians took 11 attempts. Sure, they were pioneering expeditions into the unknown, which pushed back the frontier of space and raised the bar for those to follow. But China has more than risen to the challenge. For example, innovative advances in rocketry, sensors and software that enabled Chang'e-3 to hover about 10 storeys above the moon while it scanned the surface for a safe landing spot least likely to lead to a mishap were a first for a lunar landing. Even the little things have to be done better and perfectly if man is to advance his extraterrestrial dreams.

Chang'e-3 has transformed China's dream of putting a man on the moon into a given, sooner rather than later. It is the second of a three-stage lunar programme that involves returning geological samples to earth by 2020. Scientists hope to put a Chinese man on the moon by the second half of the next decade. By then China, too, will have had to weigh the cost, complexity and risk of manned exploration against the potential rewards of science-driven missions.

Exploring the moon and the universe beyond can reap China and mankind great benefits, from knowledge of the evolution of earth, to technology, exploiting and developing scientific talent and discovering new resources. But that depends on peaceful co-operation in space, which should serve to bring great powers together for the betterment of mankind.

Coming back to earth, Chang'e-3 reminds us that China has the material and human resources to tackle the environmental challenges of sustainable development for a fifth of the world's population. It just needs the same will and commitment.