China's launch Monday of their first lunar rover marks yet another step forward in the nation's growing space program. If they successfully land on the Moon in mid-December, China will become just the second nation (the first being Russia) to place an autonomous rover on the Moon and only the third to rove another celestial body.
The rover, named Yutu (Chinese for "Jade Rabbit"), is similar in size and function to the Spirit and Opportunity vehicles NASA landed on Mars in 2004. While operating on Mars is unquestionably more difficult than on the Moon, the rapid advancement of China's space program cannot be ignored.
China and nearby India have taken somewhat divergent approaches in this second space race. Although developing the technology needed for human spaceflight, India has thus far focused on robotic exploration. In 2009, their lunar orbiter made the first detection of water on the Moon and their first Mars orbiter lifted off successfully in November. By 2016, they hope to have spacecraft studying Venus and the Sun. This approach is similar to how Japan and the EU conduct their space programs.
On the other hand, China is approaching space exploration more like the United States. Like NASA, they are pursuing both human spaceflight and robotic exploration simultaneously. It would be difficult to describe China as anything but a leader in manned missions. They are just the third country to put astronauts into orbit using homegrown technology, and China maintains the only space station currently in orbit other than the ISS. Even their robotics program is designed to support a lunar landing. When Yutu lands later this month, one task it faces is scouting a possible site for a 2030 Chinese Moon landing.
There's another difference between these two space programs. The instrument aboard India's moon orbiter that discovered water was funded by NASA and built in the United States. Due to a US law passed in 2011, NASA is directly prohibited from pursuing any project solely with China.
It may seem to some that I'm rather belaboring this point as of late, and perhaps I am. Certainly the theft of intellectual property by Chinese corporations is a real issue. But rather than finding common ground, no matter how small, with a potential partner, the United States is giving an upstart competitor the silent treatment. And, as this week's launch shows, China seems to be doing just fine without us.