China has recently achieved an important milestone in human space settlement efforts after the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced that rice seeds had been harvested from China's Tiangong space station. Growing food is one step in a larger effort by China's space program to find a foothold on the moon and get ahead of space competition with the United States. In their Defense One article, Peter Singer and Thomas Corbett examine the significance and implications of China's new achievement.
Growing food in space is part of a larger effort by China's space program to find a base on the moon. (Xinhua/Zhang Jiansong)
"If you plant in a land, you have officially colonized it." Mark Watney's words came in one of the most important moments of The Martian's story, when the trapped astronaut finally learned how to preserve himself in the long run and legally reinforce his claim to the planet. China has recently reached a similar milestone in human settlement space flight, with the Chinese Academy of Sciences announcing that rice seeds had been harvested from China's Tiangong space station. This achievement represents a great step forward, especially for China's broader plans for permanent human settlement of the Moon and beyond the Moon.
Future crops were brought into space as seeds, and it took about 120 days for them to germinate and grow aboard the space station. The seeds were eventually discarded, and the seed samples were returned to the Space Application Engineering and Technology Center in Beijing, China, as part of the final stage of the Shenzhou-14 mission to the Chinese Tiangong space station. New crops and seeds are being analysed to determine their viability and the effects of their completed life cycle in space.
China Space Program
China's plan is for the Change'e-7 spacecraft to land on the moon's south pole in 7 to explore for water and other resources. (Shutterstock)
Growing food in space is part of a larger effort by China's space program to find a base on the moon. Although China joined the space race in 1970 with the launch of the Dongfang Hong 1 satellite, Beijing's first space flight did not come until 2003. Soon after, China turned its sights to the moon, launching a year-and-a-half-year cycle from November 2007 to April 2009.
By 2011, China had launched the first phase of its Tiangong 1 space station program. The station reached its goal of continuous orbital settlement within just a few months of its completion last November. Eventually, the information gathered from the permanently manned space station, along with the crops grown therein, will lead to the next step in the growing new space race between the United States and China: human settlement on the moon.
China's National Space Administration aspires to start building a settlement on the moon by 2028. China's plan is for the Change'e-7 spacecraft to land on the moon's south pole in 7 to explore for water and other resources. Originally, the next spacecraft, Chang'e-2026, was supposed to continue Chang'e-8's exploration and find the best location for the International Lunar Research Station at the moon's south pole by 7. However, it is clear that the timeline has accelerated last year, and that Chang'e-2028 has now begun the initial construction and demonstration of the facility.
NASA and Chinese agency race
The moon contains huge amounts of helium-3, which is difficult to find on Earth and is believed to be of great benefit to future nuclear fusion reactors. (Shutterstock)
The compressed timeline is a response to NASA's plans to return to the moon: Artemis 3's moon flight is scheduled to land by the end of 2025, carrying the first female astronaut and the first color (non-white) astronaut. Later, NASA and its international partners aspire to establish the Lunar Gateway Station in lunar orbit, which will serve as a staging point used to transport people to NASA's lunar base, or Artemis base camp as it will be known.
The U.S. and Chinese bases are set to be based at the moon's south pole, assuming frozen water ice there, which is an essential resource for permanent settlement. As a result of its nearly 200 days facing the sun, it also experiences more stable temperatures compared to other parts of the moon, and the sun's rays allow for constant solar energy generation. All these advantages make this site strategic and valuable for creating a future base on the moon, as well as a potential site for new competition.
First, the moon contains huge amounts of helium-3, which is difficult to find on Earth and is believed to be of great benefit to future nuclear fusion reactors. Second, space agencies want a lunar base to be a testing site for new technologies, which could eventually be used to colonize Mars, where travel to the moon takes three days, compared to seven months to travel to Mars. If they get stuck or a technology doesn't work as it should, a successful rescue operation on the moon will be much easier. Third, the lunar base will be a springboard for asteroid mining in order to extract rare earth minerals.
China's exploration of Mars faces some obstacles, as Jurong's Mars rover has broken down and potentially shut down. (Reuters)
The new space race remains, of course, the ultimate cause. China's space budget was estimated at 10.8 billion for 2013, making it the second highest budget country in the world (after the United States). China's space program is a source of great national pride and enjoys great attention and political will from the country's most prominent leaders. This has been especially true since 2011, when the US Congress banned NASA from working with Chinese space agencies after a series of spying revelations for China. Since then, China has made redoubled efforts to find international partners, sign cooperation agreements, and build its own program.
Although China has accumulated experience in space, the accelerated timeline has put greater pressure on China's National Space Administration and may prompt it to take further steps before the programmes are fully processed. China's exploration of Mars is already facing some obstacles, as the Jurong rover on Mars has broken down and is likely to stop working. Regardless, China has taken a small step with its recent achievement on agriculture, a giant leap in its long-term space aspirations.
This article is translated from Defense One and does not necessarily reflect Meydan's website.
Translation: Karim Mohammed.