On Thursday, December 17, China successfully brought 4.4 pounds of lunar rocks and material back from the moon. It would appear that the Space Race and great power competition may be on once again.

Until Thursday, lunar samples had not been collected since 1976, making this recent event impossible to ignore for the U.S. and Russia. The three-week mission was accomplished with an unmanned spacecraft, known as Chang’e-5. The spacecraft traveled to Mons Rümker, a volcanic plain in an area of the moon that has never been explored, according to National Geographic.

Chang’e-5 deployed a lander onto the moon, which drilled and collected samples, and stored them in the module. The lander then launched into lunar orbit and eventually linked up with Chang’e-5, which returned the module to Earth.

NASA is not permitted to work directly with the China National Space Administration. Additionally, there are many restrictions in place for cooperative studies with China, which will prevent many of our scientists from being able to collect data and research from these lunar samples. The United States never allowed China access to the lunar rocks collected on the Apollo missions, so it can be expected that China will do the same with these new samples.

Nevertheless, scientists are very interested in these new samples since they come from a different lunar region. They are believed to be two billion years old, compared to the samples that the U.S. has which are a billion years older.

Clive R. Neal, a professor of civil engineering and geological sciences at the University of Notre Dame, said that these new samples “represent a completely different era of lunar history and will definitely help in our quest to understand the evolution of our moon.”

The Chinese spacecraft is composed of a lander and ascender.
Chang’e-5’s lander and ascender in the factory (China News Service)

Space travel and exploration has taken on a whole new meaning since the 1970s. Superpowers such as China, the United States, and Russia view space as the new frontier. A place for travel, resources, and possible colonization. In the growing competition between China and the U.S., space could be another area for conflict.

Last year, the former deputy commander of China’s astronaut program, Lt. Gen. Zhang Yulin, wrote in The People’s Daily that the region between the Earth and the moon would “become another broad field for the expansion of human living space.”

It’s fair to say that this development is much of a surprise to the United State. After all, the implementation of the Space Force was an acknowledgment of the need to have a military presence in space.

Chief of Washington DC operations at the Planetary Society, Brendan Curry, said that China has not “staked out some sort of declarative statement [whereby] they want to replace the United States as the leader in space, but they certainly want to be a major actor in space.”

Last year, Vice President Mike Pence announced America’s commitment to return to the moon by 2024 and accelerate its schedule. Pence stated that China wanted to “seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s pre-eminent spacefaring nation.”

At the present time, China has not made any moves indicating an interest in sending astronauts to the moon anytime soon.

Still, China’s accomplishment comes at a very interesting and dynamic time. The United States has been shifting its focus towards great power competition. Countries such as China are becoming an increasing concern. The Space Force is just one example of America’s changing policy.

After 20 years of engaging in counterterrorism and unconventional warfare, the U.S. military is shifting its resources and instituting different tactics to prepare for and defend against a peer to peer conflict scenario. Most of what is being done has to do with what’s taking place on Earth. Nonetheless, space may very well become a relevant dimension as America vies for superiority and stability throughout the world and the universe.

This article was originally published on December 21, 2020.