Moon Landing Is A Major Step Forward For China

China landed its first probe on the surface of the moon over the weekend. It's the first soft-landing on the moon's surface in nearly 40 years, and a big accomplishment for China's space program.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This weekend, China landed a probe on the surface of the moon. This is the first soft-landing on the moon's surface in nearly 40 years, and it's a major step forward for China's space program.

Joining us to discuss these developments, NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, there.

GREENE: So what did China actually pull off here?

BRUMFIEL: Well, this was a pretty big achievement. They had a robotic lander that was able to make a soft landing on the moon, and only two other countries have done this before. So it's not a first, but it's a pretty big third.

GREENE: The two other countries are the Soviet Union and the United States, and the Americans the only ones so far to the actually have had people on the moon.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, that's right. Just to remind our listeners, the Americans were the only ones to actually land astronauts on the moon. But the Soviets had long series of lunar exploration missions that even included some sample returns.

GREENE: Geoff, paint me a picture, if you can, of what's going on here. It's probably a naive to think of this little Chinese robot like approaching the American flag that we have up there. But, I mean, what does the scene look like, and what does this thing look like?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, the first thing to say is this lander is a really big piece of hardware. And it looks kind of like the bottom of the Apollo lander. It's covered in foil. It's got landing legs. The little rover looks kind of like not the current rover that we're all talking about on Mars, but the previous generation. It's sort of a small, little rover with solar panels and three little wheels. And so, yeah, it's basically this lander and this rover.

GREENE: OK. Geoff, why did China decide to do this?

BRUMFIEL: I think there were three reasons, and the first one was the PR side of this. I mean, I was up in my kitchen at 7 A.M. on Saturday, watching this on Chinese state television through my iPad. They've set up a Facebook page...

GREENE: They wanted to get the message out that they were doing this.

BRUMFIEL: They certainly did. And they put out a lot of really great images, and it's just been really great for the country.

The second reason they did it is that they've wanted to test out a lot of technologies I think they're hoping to use on future missions, like a nuclear-powered generator to keep the rover and the lander warm during the two-week long lunar nights. And they have a whole, just, bevy of telescopes, ground-penetrating radar...

GREENE: A lot of toys.

BRUMFIEL: Exactly. And I think the third and final reason was some real science that they wanted to do. This is really an interesting part of the moon they landed on, either by design or by accident. They were aiming for the Bay of Rainbows, and they ended up in a place called the Sea of Rains. But this is one of the newest parts of the moon. It's covered with lava that flowed relatively recently, meaning a few billion years ago.

But still, there's a lot that scientists here in the U.S. would like to learn about this region of the moon.

GREENE: So interesting that when you land on the moon, you don't know exactly where you're going to land.

BRUMFIEL: Well, actually, that's not entirely true. The Chinese lander was automated. It had a radar system, and it was supposed to find its own sort of nice place to land. And it was given a box to look in. It ended up outside that box. I'm not quite sure whether this was on accident, or by design. But whatever the reason, the lander ended up somewhere pretty cool.

GREENE: Where does China go from here? I mean, are we talking about sort of a new space race?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, China itself has a lot of missions planned, and I think it's part of their whole image as a rising nation. I mean, we should say India right now has a mission going to Mars. And so, in Asia, we're seeing interest in these interplanetary missions. Their manned program is also making great strides. They hope to have a space station in orbit above the Earth by 2018.

And, I mean, really, from there on out, there's a whole Christmas list of things they want to do: space telescopes and maybe a mission to Mars. So I think we'll be seeing a lot more of China in space in the coming years.

GREENE: All right. NPR's science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel, talking to us about the Chinese space landing on the moon, the first such landing in 40 years. Geoff, thanks.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

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