On today’s episode we are going to discuss the news that China has landed another probe on the surface of the moon. The Chinese mission intends to collect rock samples to bring back to Earth; the first time this will happen for over 40 years. Why is China interested in space exploration? Are we on the verge of a new space race? What is the scientific importance of moon rocks?

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Ensuing (adj) – happening after something and because of it

An argument broke out and in the ensuing fight someone got hurt

Proxy war (n) – a war fought between groups or smaller countries that each represent the interests of other larger powers, and may have help and support from these

The USA and USSR fought a proxy war in Korea

Capability (n) – the ability to do something

These tasks are beyond my capabilities

Probe (n) – a small spacecraft, with no one travelling in it, sent into space to make measurements and send back information to scientists on earth

There is currently a space probe heading towards the sun!

To analyse (v) – to study or examine something in detail, in order to discover more about it

Researchers analysed the purchases of 6300 households  

Volcanic (adj) – of, or relating to, or made by a volcano 

They were not expecting the volcanic eruption

Overdrive (n) – a state of great activity, effort, or hard work

The cast of the play was in overdrive rehearsing for the first performance

Lunar (adj) – of or relating to the moon

The lunar eclipse was beautiful

In the years following the end of World War II, the competition and ensuing Cold War between the USA and Soviet Union impacted almost every part of international affairs. Although never resulting in a direct conflict between the two superpowers, the Cold War led to years of aggression, proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, spying, and much more. Incredibly, the Cold war was not limited to the planet earth! The Space Race was a competition, taking place from the 1950s until the 1970s, between the two Cold War rivals, to achieve firsts in spaceflight capability; to be the first to reach space, to put the first person in space, and to put the first man on the moon! Although the USSR won many of the early races, it was the USA who ultimately is considered to have been victorious in the space race. However, is a new space race about to commence?

Emerging superpower China is, at the time of writing at least, in the middle of an operation to place a unmanned probe on the surface of the moon! The robotic Chang’e mission has the aim of collecting samples of rock and dust to bring back to our planet. This would make China only the third country to collect moon rock, and the first country to do so for 44 years! By using a number of specially designed instruments, such as a camera, scoop and drill, the team of scientists behind the probe hope to gather around 2 kg of material! Although nearly 400kg of rock and soil have previously been gathered from the surface of the moon, the majority of this was brought back by the USA’s Apollo astronauts who actually landed on the moon in person. The last unmanned probe to gather samples was the Soviet Luna 24 mission, which collected just under just 10 percent of what China aims to do!

What is the importance of this mission? I think we can actually ask this question in two different ways; what is the scientific importance of this mission? And what is the political importance of this mission? Let’s start with the scientific importance! Analysing materials from the moon will teach us vital information about the moon’s origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface. The Chinese mission has targeted a volcanic area of the moon known as Mons Rümker. Previous moon missions by the USA and Soviet Union have collected samples, but those samples were all very old (perhaps more than three billion years old). Samples from Mons Rümker, on the other hand, are likely to be only 1.2 or 1.3 billion years old! Why is this important? The younger rocks will allow scientists to understand the geological history of the moon in more detail. Moreover, these additional insights should allow experts to more accurately predict the ages of the surfaces on other planets. This is done by counting craters (the more craters, the older the surface), but it depends on having some accurate measurements as a guide!

What is the political importance of this mission? Chang’e-5’s success follows China’s two previous Moon landings – those of Chang’e-3 in 2013 and Chang’e-4 last year. Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream” have gone into overdrive. China is aiming to catch up with the US and Russia in space travel, and perhaps eventually surpass their achievements! The country has invested tremendous amounts of money into its military-run space programme, with the ultimate ambition to eventually send humans to the moon. Last year, China became the first country to land a lunar rover on the far side of the moon! China also has plans for their own space station to be operational in the next few years, an eventual lunar base, and the most powerful rockets ever. Like in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, space travel is undoubtedly a demonstration of power; the technological power to create the advanced devices required; the military power to create enormous rockets; the national power to coordinate such an event. It is also a source of national pride and inspiration – the USA will always be the first country to put a man on the moon, but who will be the first country to put an astronaut on Mars?

Final Thought

China’s mission to the moon undoubtedly has scientific and political importance! It will provide scientists with important information about the history and geology of the moon, as well as potentially having consequences for the study of other planets. It also demonstrates China’s growing political, military, and scientific power! The last space race was a competition between the USA and the Soviet Union; there were no other contestants in the race. What about the next space race? The USA and Russia are still important competitors. After listening to this podcast, you probably realise that China is also a major rival. India, Japan, Europe, and countries in the Middle East are also actively involved in space exploration. In fact, there are now private companies (like Space-X, Virgin Galactic, and Boeing) with the ability to fly to space! This increased competition is likely to push all of the countries involved to invest and aim at more impressive targets. Perhaps putting another person on the moon, or the first person on mars, or even a different moon in the solar system? What do you think about China’s mission to the moon? Do you think it’s important, or not? What do you think will happen in the future? 

Comprehension Questions

Q. How much material does the Chinese probe hope to bring back to Earth?

A. about 2kg

Q. Where on the moon is China planning to land?

A. Close to an area known as Mons Rümker

Q. What private companies are involved in space exploration?

A. Space-X, Virgin Galactic, and Boeing

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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