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China Shoots 'Jade Rabbit' Rover to the Moon

Friday, December 6, 2013

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

This week China launched its Chang'e-3 lunar lander, with the Jade Rabbit moon rover on board. BBC science editor David Shukman, who got a behind-the-scenes glimpse of China's secretive space program during a recent trip there, talks about the motivations behind the country's moonshot.



This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. On July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were five days into their journey to the moon. As he prepared for his historic landing, Buzz Aldrin received this advisory from Houston.

RONALD EVANS: Apollo 11, Houston, over.

BUZZ ALDRIN: Houston, Apollo 11, go ahead.

EVANS: Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning is one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband.

You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

ALDRIN: OK. We'll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

EVANS: Roger.

FLATOW: No word on whether Buzz ever found that bunny. We'll have to ask him next time we see him. But this week, 44 years later, China launched its own Jade Rabbit to the moon to explore the Bay of Rainbows. The Jade Rabbit is a rover carried on the Chang'e-3 spacecraft and it's scheduled to touch down on the lunar surface 10 days from now.

My next guest just returned from China where he got a rare look behind the scenes at the Chang'e mission and the Chinese space program. David Shukman is the BBC science editor based in London. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, David.

DAVID SHUKMAN: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

FLATOW: You just got back from two weeks in China, but tell us what they're going there, what you saw 'cause it's very secretive, isn't it?

SHUKMAN: Yeah, you don't get much access. I mean, I've had the privilege of filming at the Kennedy Space Center, even the Russian launch site of Baikonur. Access, by contrast, in China is extremely limited. After many months, we got access to interview a leading Chinese space scientist, a kind of godfather of lunar exploration for the Chinese.

Before he could talk to us on camera, he said he had to get clearance from his bosses. Well, the Chinese military are all over the space program so no mistake of who the bosses were. But when he did sit down with us, it was fascinating to get the insights into what they want to go to the moon for. I mean, the Apollo missions, which were highly praised in China, were about a visit or about a brief exploration and a safe return.

China looks to the moon to exploit it, to get down onto the surface, to really understand the geology and to really get to grips with making use of it, seeing the moon as a resource. And there's kind of no shame about that, which there may be in the West if such an idea was floated there, that seems completely logical.

So it was kind of fascinating for me to get this interview with a Chinese scientist who had never spoken to the Western media before and for him to be so relatively open about these long term ambitions. And kind of sitting there, you think if this was coming from anybody else, you'd take it with a very large pinch of salt.

Coming from China, where they are spending unknown billions on their space program, as one British space scientist said, if you wanted to be a preeminent space-faring nation in 20 or 30 years time, you would do exactly what the Chinese are doing with launchers, with manned space flight in orbit and now with these mission to the moon and in the future beyond.

FLATOW: What is the point of this mission? What is going to happen with this rover on the moon?

SHUKMAN: Okay. It's going to land and, as you say, in about 10 days time, although that hasn't been confirmed. The day after it lands, the little rover will drive off a ramp, off the back of the landing craft and that will then start to scoot around. The Chinese say the initial basic point is to be able to prove that they can do a soft landing.

If they get it done on the ground, if the rover drives off, if they get a few months' use out of it, they get some pictures back, I think they'll be delighted. The important thing to stress here is that this mission, which I think is highly significant - I mean, when we get pictures back, no doubt they'll come through of a Chinese flag planted on the lunar surface.

That will cause quite a stir globally, but it's just the beginning. There's another rover mission planned. Beyond that, there are two sample return missions planned to get down onto the ground, extract samples and fly them back to China and then beyond that they want to go with a manned mission.

And, you know, it's quite clear that when the Chinese sets themselves long term goals - and that's what they like to do. They like a 20-year vision. They like a 30-year goal. They generally implement it. And I think that's what's striking about this mission.

FLATOW: It's interesting. While here in the U.S. we talk about, well, do we want to cut back on the Cassini mission or cut back on the Mars rover mission, the Chinese are just going full steam ahead with...

SHUKMAN: Yeah, that's right.

FLATOW: ...spending all this money on their program.

SHUKMAN: Yeah, unknown amounts of money, but it's quite clear it's a lot of it. But by one estimate, and this is unconfirmed, there may be as many as a million people in China working on different aspects of the -- their space program. Talking to someone from the European space agency who has visited China several times, he is absolutely stunned by the scale of investment in all of these key technologies.

FLATOW: And is moon just a first stepping stone toward other planets like Mars?

SHUKMAN: Yeah. They want to go to Mars. They have definite plans for robotic missions to Mars. Certainly on the Horizon, they'd love to go with a manned mission to Mars. But I think the initial thing is this great interest in the moon. I mean, the lovely audio clip you had there, you know, it's important for China, for the kind of mythology. It's very important for national prestige.

And I think beyond that, it's very important for sort of technological prowess. If you can do the moon, you can do the other planets is their logic. And if in addition, you can get resources out of the moon, if you can discover and make use of helium 3, for example, Professor Uyang(ph) who I interviewed is very keen on helium 3 as a future fusion fuel.

He's very keen on the fact that the lunar atmosphere is so incredibly thin that sunlight striking the surface is very, very powerful, which means you could have a belt, as he describes it, of solar panels around the equator of the moon to generate huge amounts of power.

Then, he talks about rare earth minerals. He talks about titanium. You know, they have a view of the moon as a place to go and make use of conceivably as a jumping off point to go beyond.

FLATOW: That's an amazing vision that's just - it's breathtaking if they can pull this off.

SHUKMAN: I think that's right and you know, the really striking comparison - because, you know, they're full of admiration for the Apollo missions, but the striking difference is that the Apollo - the Kennedy speech was, what, 1961? The first landing, Apollo 11, was 1969, eight years, and incredible rush because of the Cold War imperative.

The Chinese have got time. They're giving it their own pace. They're going very carefully. They're going very methodically. They're going with this huge investment. They're not kind of competing, necessarily, and they've got an eye on India and what India's doing, but they're going at their own very careful pace. They don't want mistakes. That would be very damaging and embarrassing and wouldn't suit the Communist Party kind of ethos.

So, you know, partly to avoid that, they're taking things by step by step, but with incredible ambition. And I think we have to see it in a 20, 30, 40-year time scale.

FLATOW: By U.S. law, the United States is not allowed to cooperate with China in the space exploration but could other countries join in once this gets going?

SHUKMAN: Yeah, I mean, the Brits are very keen. You know, David Cameron was in China this week talking very much about cooperation, about sharing technologies. I mean, obviously there's a limit to that. There are some concerns about how china acquires technology by fair means and foul. But the British space community, all of the people who are involved in space work here are keen by and large to cooperate with the Chinese because they can see the volume of money being spent. They can see the ambition.

You know, there's a British team I met who would love to get an instrument on China's Mars mission down the track. I mean, they would think that would be a terrific thing to do in that it would encourage a sense of cooperation and with a diplomatic spinoff. But more than that it'd also be a scientific benefit that, you know, we in Europe would be part of a scientific endeavor that we couldn't otherwise afford.

I know - and people are very aware here of the American view, nervousness in congress about the rise of China and that somehow that should be somewhat kept at bay. And I think we have a fascinating debate to play out in the years ahead about which way to go.

FLATOW: This is a pretty risky effort to make a soft landing on the moon, right? This is - this could go badly.

SHUKMAN: It could go very badly and it would be very embarrassing. But, you know, I think national prestige is so important to them that they will have gone through everything and quadruple checked everything they possibly can to try and avoid failure. You know, they've got phenomenal computing power. They've got great IT skills. They very patiently built up command and control. You know...

FLATOW: And they've got a million people you see working on space (unintelligible).

SHUKMAN: Well, if that number's right, there's certainly a lot of people busy with this. They've - you know, they've cooperated with the Europeans. They say they've borrowed by fair means or foul all the best technologies for this kind of thing. So I think there's some confidence that the landing will go OK. I'd be surprised if they failed on that. I mean, Mars is different. Mars is tougher.

FLATOW: Yeah. And what science instruments are on this rover?

SHUKMAN: OK. There's a whole range of them actually. A lot of them are pretty standard. And critics of the mission have said, well what are they going to do that's new. But the Chinese point to a couple that are very interesting. You know, one is a telescope that'll be on the lander that will just provide an astronomical view of space from the lunar surface. They say that'll be a novelty. It will be interesting.

The rover, a little buggy that drives around, will have a ground-penetrating radar slung underneath it that they say will be able to gather data from as deep as a 100 meters below the lunar surface. They say that's a new feature.

FLATOW: Yeah, for mining, yeah.

SHUKMAN: Yeah, well, yeah. I mean, if you're interested in what's down in the lunar rock, that's a great way to start.

FLATOW: All right. David, thank you very, very much for taking time to enlighten us.

SHUKMAN: It's been a great pleasure.

FLATOW: And then we're all jealous of your trip getting over there to want to talk to them in China. Have a happy holiday and happy New Year.

SHUKMAN: Thank you very much, indeed. It's been a great pleasure.

FLATOW: David Shukman is the BBC science editor based in London. We're going to take a break and lots more talking going on about modern space, Chinese ambition on the moon. We've just done that. We're going to talk about "The Simpsons." Yeah, "The Simpsons" have a lot of math in the shows. You ever notice that? We're going to talk about what there is to see and why there is so much math in "The Simpsons." So stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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