While NASA is trying to figure out the best possible way to pull off a lunar landing as soon as it can, we’re not the only ones literally shooting for the moon.
China has already sent its Chang’e 4 lander to the far side of the moon. Now the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has its own plans to send a scientific research station to the moon’s south pole within the next 10 years. CNSA head Zhang Kejian announced the upcoming Tiangong space station (not to be confused with the one that crashed to Earth), whose name translates to “heavenly palace,” on China’s Space Day.
Space Day was launched in 2016 to spread awareness about the progress of China’s aerospace program throughout the country. With this year’s theme being to “pursue space dreams for win-win cooperation,” it makes sense that there would be a reveal as big as this. Never mind the cooperation part, because China doesn’t cooperate with the U.S. in space activities.
The CNSA plans to send the core parts of the space station to the moon on its new Long March 5B rocket sometime between 2020 and 2025. The lunar south pole is definitely not where those of us used to Apollo would expect to see such a major space station.
NASA's Apollo missions had all touched down around the equator. The south pole is actually one of the most robotically explored regions of the moon, and NASA also has set its sights on putting human bootprints there by its 2024 deadline.
What makes the lunar south pole even more intriguing — besides being a new frontier for human exploration — is the frozen water deposits in craters that never see the sun. It has possibly remained undisturbed for billions of years because of that area’s lack of geological phenomena such as wind and erosion. If anyone has the intent to hang around there for a while, missions of the future will rely on moon water for drinking (obviously), cooling down overheated equipment, breathing, and making fuel (after splitting into its hydrogen and oxygen components).
Even though much of it is frozen and most lies in shadow, the underside of the moon isn’t completely dark and dreary. Because of the moon’s tilt, areas exist that are bathed in sunlight, which can eventually be harvested to power Tiangong and light up the space station without the risk of a bulb burning out.
We can only wonder what China will find on the south end of the moon ... if NASA doesn’t get there first.