It occurred to me, as I was looking at a draft of this article, that the efforts of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in terms of space exploration were foretold almost forty years ago by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel 2010: Odyssey Two (not so much in Peter Hyams’ 1984/5 movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact although let me say here and now I do like that movie and have a copy on DVD). I distinctly remember devouring Clarke’s 1982 novel and boggling at the chutzpah of the Chinese space agency (if a Chinese Agency can be said to have chutzpah) as they assembled their spacecraft Tsien in the full incognizant view of the western world’s eyes, vying to be the first to board the ill-fated American spacecraft Discovery following its mysteriously incomplete mission described in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So, as the western world takes not very much notice, China’s Chang’e 5 mission seems to have been pretty successful. Lunar surface samples brought back on December 16th made China the third nation to have collected some moondust after the USA and the Soviet Union.
The scientific dividend from Chang’e 5’s mission will be the continued study of the samples for evidence of vulcanism and the formation of the Moon. Official sources at a news conference indicated that the China National Space Administration (CNSA) would be prepared to share samples with scientists from other countries. Whether the USA will participate is open to question, since Congress passed a bill in 2012 forbidding NASA to cooperate with China. See https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-17/Chang-e-5-achieves-breakthroughs-in-China-s-deep-space-exploration–WikE7l9XSo/index.html
And for the non-scientists, the same article says that some portion of the 2 Kilograms of Lunar soil that was collected will be displayed at the National Museum of China.
Where do we go from here? Well, at least there isn’t an derelict American Spacecraft somewhere off Jupiter, otherwise I think that might be on the agenda. Chang’e 6, scheduled for launch in 2024 will have its own mission profile following the successful completion of Chang’e 5’s. It has not yet been revealed officially yet, but the smart money seems to be saying that Chang’e 6 will be landing somewhere near the lunar south pole. Further ahead, I’m looking forward to seeing how the 3D printing experiments (to build a shelter? really?) scheduled for Chang’e 8 in 2027 turn out. Who knows where any of us will be at that time.
While we’re thinking of surprise longshots, don’t forget also that the first Chinese mission to Mars, Tianwen-1, is something like 80-90% of the way there. If you’re like me, you had no idea that the PRC had considered sending a mission to Mars, much less launched a probe already. Tianwen-1 was launched in July 2020 and is scheduled to enter Mars orbit in February 2021. So that’s not long to wait.