China's enthusiasm for space exploration is clear and, in recent years, the nation has made huge strides in the technology to launch robots and humans into orbit and beyond.
In a government white paper released on Tuesday, China has outlined a five-year plan to speed up space technology development to become the first country to soft-land a robotic probe on the far side of the moon and send its first mission to the Red Planet. Both achievements are planned before 2020.
According to the document, the China National Space Administration's (CNSA) plans are to "explore outer space and enhance understanding of the earth and the cosmos; to utilize outer space for peaceful purposes, promote human civilization and social progress, and benefit the whole of mankind; to meet the demands of economic, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress; and to improve the scientific and cultural levels of the Chinese people, protect China's national rights and interests, and build up its overall strength."
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China sees space exploration as a matter of national pride and has made huge strides in human and robotic spaceflight in recent years. In 2003, the agency carried out its first human spaceflight, which was followed by a spacewalk in 2008. In 2011, the first Chinese space station prototype, Tiangong-1, was launched into orbit and during its two-year operational lifetime it was visited by a series of spacecraft, including the Shenzhou 8, 9 and 10 spacecraft, all of which demonstrated orbital docking and the latter two spacecraft delivering astronauts (also known as taikonauts or yuhangyuans, which means "space navigators") to the orbital outpost. These missions were notable because they included the nation's first two female astronauts, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping.
Tiangong-1 is now in a decaying orbit and has been replaced by Tiangong-2, which was most recently visited by taikonauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong on the Shenzhou 11 mission for 30 days, the longest Chinese spaceflight in history. These prototype space laboratories act as test beds and pave the way for the planned permanent Chinese space station to be launched in the 2020s.
In 2013, the CNSA launched itself into the spotlight after successfully landing a rover onto the lunar surface, the first successful soft landing on the moon since the 1970s. The rover, called Yutu, was a part of the Chang'e 3 mission, a series of robotic moon missions intended to pave the way for future human landings. Record-breaking Yutu explored the dusty lunar surface for 31 months.
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China's long-term goal is to send a human mission to the moon. Though that ambition wasn't included in today's white paper, the space agency hopes to land another robotic mission on the moon in 2018, but this time the target will be a lot more difficult. No one has ever soft-landed a probe on the craggy lunar far side, so if successful, China will nail a first.
Also detailed in the white paper are plans to explore Mars and return samples and "conduct research into major scientific questions such as the origin and evolution of the solar system, and search for extraterrestrial life." This includes a possible Jupiter mission to explore the gas giant and its moons.
Whether or not these goals will be possible or successful remains to be seen, but the rate at which the military-run space agency is advancing, China is certainly on track to becoming a major player in space exploration in the coming years.
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