Fifty years after the first moon landing, an American triumph that gripped the world, China marked the start of 2019 with its own lunar achievement. Chang’e-4, a Chinese probe, landed on the far side of the moon in early January, broadcasting – for the first time in human history – images of the cratered surface that faces away from Earth.
Chang’e-4 has been billed as a friendly explorer, the latest step in humanity’s mission to better understand and exploit the universe around us. But space exploration has always been about power. Beijing’s lunar feat represents the latest development in the space race between China and the United States – a conflict that will be “important to modern warfare,” according to a US Defense Intelligence Agency report released in January that identified China as a “threat”. The Chinese foreign ministry responded by calling the report “reckless” and “totally groundless,” insisting that China “opposes militarisation and an arms race in space.”
The space race is back on, and it’s no longer just about prestige. In February, US president Donald Trump signed a directive ordering the creation of a Space Force, a new branch of the military “to deter and counter threats in space.” Where space might once have been a frontier for international collaboration, China’s launch has made the stars a contested territory for military, civilian and technological progress.
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