China launches Chang’e 6 lunar probe, revving up space race with U.S.

WENCHANG SPACE LAUNCH SITE, China — China launched an uncrewed lunar spacecraft Friday in a first-of-its-kind mission to bring back samples from the far side of the moon, the latest step in a rapidly advancing Chinese space program that is spurring competition with the United States and others.

The Chang’e 6 lifted off on time at 5:27 p.m. local time (5:27 a.m. ET) from the Wenchang Space Launch Site in China’s southern island province of Hainan.

The launch of the lunar probe, which NBC News was one of a handful of news organizations to attend, and the national excitement around it had transformed the normally sleepy fishing village of Longlou into a major tourist attraction, with crowds spilling from tour buses and heading to beaches and rooftops with the best views of the spaceport. One rooftop owner said he had sold out 200 seats at 200 yuan (about $28) each.

Ahead of the launch there was a festival-like atmosphere on the beach, where vendors offered space paraphernalia and groups of children sold Chinese flags for 3 yuan (about 40 cents) each. Families sprawled on picnic blankets playing cards, while others strung up hammocks between palm trees so they could wait in the limited shade.

Yiuwah Ng, a 28-year-old real estate office worker from the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai, traveled six hours by car and another three hours by ferry to stake out the best spot along the shore, where he had been camping for three days with friends and his dog.

“I want to witness this historic moment,” he said of the launch, his fourth. “It’s an important first step for China’s lunar exploration.”

Max Zhang, a self-described “rocket chaser” from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, has been photographing launches at Wenchang from the beach since 2011.

“I’m addicted to the shock of seeing the launches, especially the sound of the rocket flame,” he said. “It shakes my heart.”

Space enthusiasts awaiting the launch of China’s Chang’e 6 lunar probe on the island of Hainan on Thursday. (Fred Dufour / NBC News)Space enthusiasts awaiting the launch of China’s Chang’e 6 lunar probe on the island of Hainan on Thursday. (Fred Dufour / NBC News)

Space enthusiasts awaiting the launch of China’s Chang’e 6 lunar probe on the island of Hainan on Thursday. (Fred Dufour / NBC News)

A force to be reckoned with’

If successful, the Chang’e mission will be a crucial step in realizing the country’s goals of landing Chinese astronauts on the moon by 2030 and eventually building a base on the lunar surface.

The outcome of the mission will also have implications far beyond China’s borders. A slew of spacefaring nations, including Russia, India, Japan and the U.S., also have their sights set on the moon, creating what some experts have likened to a new kind of space race.

“China is trying to prove that it’s a force to be reckoned with, and so it’s always that China is competing against everyone in space,” said Clayton Swope, deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

A successful Chang’e 6 mission would demonstrate how sophisticated China’s lunar exploration program has become in a relatively short time.

“Twenty-five years ago, they had very rudimentary space capabilities,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank based in Washington. “Going from that to where they are today — I think they’ve clearly exceeded Russia and their space capabilities are really only second to the United States.”

China achieved its first moon landing in 2013 with the Chang’e 3 mission, which set a lander and rover on the lunar surface to study the moon’s terrain. Before that, only the U.S. and the former Soviet Union had successfully landed spacecraft on the moon.

In 2019, China notched another historic milestone with its Chang’e 4 flight, becoming the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon, the part that permanently faces away from Earth.

The following year, in 2020, China returned to the moon’s near side, which always faces Earth, landing the Chang’e 5 spacecraft on a volcanic plain known as Oceanus Procellarum. The probe retrieved samples there and brought them back to Earth, representing a big technological leap forward.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has invited scientists from the U.S., Europe and Asia to apply to borrow the lunar samples for their own research, holding a pitch meeting last week in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Researchers funded by NASA received rare approval from Congress to submit proposals, raising the possibility of high-level U.S.-China space cooperation that is otherwise prohibited by U.S. law.

This time, the Chang’e 6 spacecraft is aiming to land and retrieve samples from the South Pole-Aitken basin, an ancient and sprawling impact crater on the far side of the moon.

Spectators on a beach near the Wenchang Space Launch site on Thursday. (Fred Dufour / NBC News)Spectators on a beach near the Wenchang Space Launch site on Thursday. (Fred Dufour / NBC News)

Spectators on a beach near the Wenchang Space Launch site on Thursday. (Fred Dufour / NBC News)

Conducting a sample return mission from the side of the moon that always faces away from Earth is challenging because mission controllers on the ground have no way of directly contacting a spacecraft in that region. Instead, signals need to be relayed through a satellite now orbiting the moon that China launched from the same site in Hainan last month.

While difficult, the effort could have enormous payoffs. Studies suggest that the moon’s near side was more volcanically active than the far side, which means all of the lunar samples obtained thus far may be telling only part of the story of the moon’s origin and evolution.

Collecting lunar samples from different geological eras and regions “is of great value and significant for all mankind to have a more comprehensive understanding of the moon and even the origin of the solar system,” Ge Ping, a mission leader from CNSA’s Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center, told reporters in Hainan on Thursday.

Beyond its scientific objectives, the Chang’e-6 mission carries with it geopolitical considerations. The flight is a precursor to a pair of Chinese robotic missions to the moon’s south pole to scout out locations to build a moon base. Last year, the Chinese and Russian space agencies agreed to jointly build a research station on the lunar surface.

NASA and its commercial partners also aim to establish a permanent presence at the lunar south pole, though the agency’s Artemis moon missions have faced numerous delays and budget overruns. The current timeline has American astronauts returning to the lunar surface in 2026 at the earliest.

With China and Russia forming a rival coalition, there is some pressure for the U.S. to keep its foot on the accelerator, Harrison said.

“It does matter who gets there first, and it matters how you get there and what kind of coalition you’re bringing with you,” he said.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has on multiple occasions warned that the U.S. runs the risk of falling behind China’s lunar ambitions. In an interview this week with Yahoo Finance, Nelson outlined what’s at stake in the new space race.

“I think it’s not beyond the pale that China would suddenly say, ‘We are here. You stay out,’” he said.

Asked about international competition in space on Thursday, Ge said, “All countries in the world should explore, develop and use outer space peacefully.”

“There is no need to worry too much,” he added. “Space programs are for all humans.”

A street vendor selling space merchandise ahead of the lunar launch on Friday. (Janis Mackey Frayer)A street vendor selling space merchandise ahead of the lunar launch on Friday. (Janis Mackey Frayer)

A street vendor selling space merchandise ahead of the lunar launch on Friday. (Janis Mackey Frayer)

As more countries around the world build up space capabilities, NASA has pushed for more global cooperation, establishing the Artemis Accords in 2020 to promote peaceful, responsible and sustainable practices. U.S. law prevents China from joining the 39 other nations that have signed the accords, which both China and Russia have criticized as a tool to promote U.S. dominance in space.

Many Western space policy experts have in turn raised concerns about China’s and Russia’s intentions. The full scope of China’s ambitions in space is not known, for instance, because its space agency does not operate with the same level of transparency as NASA. The country’s space program is also more closely tied to the military than in the U.S.

“We cannot ever say that China’s investment in civilian space technologies are only civilian and not to be used for military purposes,” said Namrata Goswami, a professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University and co-author of the 2020 book “Scramble for the Skies: The Great Power Competition to Control the Resources of Outer Space.”

While it may feel as if China’s spaceflight objectives have accelerated in recent years, they are part of a decades-long strategy, Goswami said.

“Many of the leaders of China’s space program announced these goals and timelines 20 years ago,” she said. “What is astounding to me is that they are achieving almost all their milestones on time, and for them, that has a strategic advantage in the global narrative of who’s doing it better.”

As much as the moon and its resources can provoke competition among nations, space exploration can also be unifying, Swope said.

“We are literally a speck in the universe, and when we go to the moon or explore space, we as humankind have that shared human trait where we want to understand the unknown and we want to discover,” he said. “That does transcend politics.”

Janis Mackey Frayer reported from the Wenchang Space Launch Site in China, and Denise Chow reported from New York.

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