Sunday, December 15, 2013

Beijing, the Jade Rabbit has landed

It's been a while since Earthlings have sent something to the Moon that hasn't had a hard landing. But over the weekend, China's Yutu rover (Yutu meaning "Jade Rabbit" in Mandarin) set down in the Bay of Rainbows, and did so without making a crater. Here's a CCTV video of it rolling onto the moonscape:

This is, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, a fairly significant step for the Chinese space program. It takes a lot of technical know-how and organization to pull something like this off. You need a reliable booster--something that China hasn't always had--to go with all the components on top, which need to work nearly perfectly in a harsh environment. And that's not even counting all the calculations needed to get the thing to hit the Moon from the Earth, both of which are moving in relation to each other and to the Sun. (The more cynical, and I mean possessing weapons-grade cynicism, might suggest a Chinese remake of "Capricorn One.")

It appears that the Yutu can do some legitimate science; among other things, it carries ground-penetrating radar that could offer useful insights into the moon's composition. And that's something that everyone should be happy about.

But there are also some concerns about the end game for China. For one thing, the official announcement said "We finally have the right to share the resources on the moon with developed countries." Which isn't exactly starting a war, but it's not coming in peace for all mankind either. For another, the space program closely is intertwined with the military--something that is true in many countries, but especially so in China.

I don't think China has nefarious plans for the Moon, or, at this point, the ability to pull them off. It just sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. But this achievement clearly shows that the China's technical abilities are making strides even as--and perhaps because--space is more accessible now than at any point in history.

How it all shakes out remains to be seen. But perhaps if nothing else it will remind the world that space exploration is, and should be, inspiring.

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