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China unveils five-year plan for space exploration that continues push into lunar space

It’s an ambitious to-do list

China Launches Longest Crewed Mission to New Space Station Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China has released its plans for space exploration over the next five years, detailing ambitious goals that include strengthening its space infrastructure and developing a next-generation spacecraft for carrying people to space. The country is also researching how it could possibly land people on the Moon in the coming years.

The roadmap, detailed in a new white paper released today, would continue China’s ambitious progress in the realm of aerospace. Over the last few decades, the country has placed significant emphasis on expanding its space capabilities, increasing the frequency and scope of its launches, and pushing into new areas such as the robotic exploration of Mars. China has also mounted a long-term campaign of lunar exploration that entails sending a series of landers and rovers to the lunar surface every few years. In 2019, the country became the first to land a rover on the far side of the Moon, and in 2020, China brought samples of the Moon back to Earth.

Given China’s focus on the Moon, it’s been expected for years that the country would eventually try to land people on the lunar surface, too. As the nation’s lunar program has advanced, China has also made significant progress in its human exploration program. In 2021, the country launched the core module of a new space station that will be built out in orbit around Earth. There are currently three astronauts living onboard the station.

Before China attempts to send people to the lunar surface, the country first plans to continue studying the Moon with probes. The white paper details plans to send two additional robotic spacecraft to the Moon within the next five years that will study the lunar polar regions, areas of the lunar surface that are thought to be home to water ice. The first of the two probes will return lunar samples, while the second will do a “hopping detection” in an area in permanent shadow. The nation is also going to study plans for its next lunar probe, as well as work with international partners to “build an international research station” on the Moon, according to the white paper.

It’s unclear when China plans to complete this station or when it’s aiming to land humans on the lunar surface. But as China pushes toward the Moon, NASA is working toward an ambitious lunar landing of its own. The US space agency’s major human spaceflight program at the moment is Artemis, which seeks to send the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface as early as 2025. Along with human lunar landings, Artemis also calls for robotic exploration of the lunar surface with a series of landers and rovers.

Though the Moon has always been a big focus for China, the country is also eying the exploration of other planets in our Solar System. It hopes to launch probes to near-Earth asteroids in the next five years, as well as study ways to send spacecraft to the Jupiter system and to Mars again, with plans to bring back samples from the Red Planet.

The white paper lists a great deal of other space goals, such as building out China’s space station, updating its satellite technologies, improving its space transportation and rocket systems, creating new rocket engines, and more. It’s a pretty long to-do list for the next half-decade, but so far, China has made it clear that space exploration is a priority.