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Chinese abacus on the moon

By John Coulter | China Daily | Updated: 2013-12-16 07:23

If you have seen Chang'e-3 land on the moon and its very smart-looking six-wheeled rover, Yutu (or Jade Rabbit), being lowered to the moon's surface, think for a second. From "made in China" to "an export of China", the world has changed, accelerating into new situations and joltingly amended viewpoints.

Just two-to-three centuries ago European nations (some in the financial negative territory news now) were racing to colonize and mine/farm the rest of the world in exchange for trinkets. The goal was God, glory, guns and gold. On a remote island continent, Australia, they planted their flag in 1788, and called it "ours". Later, in Antarctica, and on Mount Qomolangma and the moon, planting the flag did not have the same significance.

Indeed, what was the significance of the United States' moon landing? When former US president John F. Kennedy grandly announced, in 1963, that the US had the technology to achieve a moon landing "this decade", he inspired his country and people. And they did it.

So what's the fuss about a moon landing 40 years later? And now that a made-in-China rover is on the moon what is the world coming to?

Comments on Yahoo a day after the launch of Chang'e-3 totaled 1,036. They mainly lamented the budget cuts for NASA, initiated by former US president George W. Bush and later by President Barack Obama, and said China's advance was a wake-up call. Many comments exhibited ignorance, postulating that China would steal the US flag planted on the moon in 1969, or that the first car crash on the moon (international incident) was in sight. Vehicle maneuvering on the moon is limited to a few kilometers, and the American and Chinese sites are "moondays" away.

The French daily, Le Monde, has addressed China's advances in space more matter-of-factly. It says the "astromobile" is the first object on the moon since the Russian lunar probe in 1970s. Le Monde praises China's achievement and refers to other countries that have tried the moon, the former Soviet Union, Japan, India but fails to mention the US.

The Apollo missions were unarguably gallant. Kennedy and Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, are heroes of mankind for their aspirations and accomplishments. The computational power of the 1969 Apollo mission was less than a laptop.

In contrast, China's rover is four decades of IT advances better. The rover does not need to risk human astronauts, and robotics can sample and survey better and more precisely than the human hand.

But the question everyone avoids is who will do what on the moon. There are many artists' impressions of stations on Earth's satellite, and Chinese websites, official and amateur, have been prolific in creative interpretations of their China Dream.

Only Americans refer to "colonies" on the moon and other "territories" in space. Planting a US flag in 1969 with a wire to hold it up because there was no air or wind was cute. But that is all. Can we live on the moon? And what would be the purpose: science, commerce, tourism, mining or manufacturing? That is like asking: Amerigo Vespucci, why explore America?

So will China's rover discover anything surprising? Ores? Signs of water, carbon and perhaps life? The rover is designed to run for three months and maybe extend after that. It carries a state-of-the-art telescope to point at stars and study them, unhindered by the weather and even by the atmosphere. The images relayed to Earth will be of a quality and quantity unprecedented.

So in terms of rationale, using the moon as a permanent observatory makes a lot of sense. All astronomy institutes will be clamoring, begging for a peek. That is why we are called Peking University, quipped a professor in the Astronomy Department of Peking University. "We have more than 40 requests to share". So far the Chinese authorities are willing to work with the European Union space agency.

During the Cold War, there was a clear space race between the US and the Soviet Union to demonstrate technological superiority, first with "sputniks" and dogs and chimps, and humans in orbit, all won by the Soviet Union. And then the US landed a man on the moon, and the equation changed.

The new equation, nothing to do with chimps in space or men on the moon, is about science and strategy. And China doesn't want to lag behind that.

The author is an Australian researcher collaborating with Chinese academic and commercial institutions.

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