Floating back under parachute from outer space to Inner Mongolia on November 17, China’s Shenzhou-11 astronauts brought to a close the nation’s longest piloted space trek, which lasted 33 days. The mission capped off a year that saw a series of noteworthy successes in China’s blossoming space program, including the country’s sixth manned space mission, the launch of a new space lab module and the inaugural use of a new spaceport. China also opened a world-class radio telescope this year, signaling the country’s growing involvement in space science. These advances, experts say, establish China as one of the top-tier spacefaring nations on Earth and the one with perhaps more momentum than anyone—a status that excites scientists and could inspire other nations to step up their own plans.

Most of the Shenzhou-11 mission had the two crew members, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, safely tucked inside the live-in space lab Tiangong-2, which just launched in September. The duo’s work was dedicated in large part to honing expertise required to develop China’s own large space station. That station is due to come online by the mid 2020s—around when the International Space Station is due for retirement—a fact that Chinese space planners have emphasized.

The year’s Chinese checklist also included the first use of a new Kennedy Space Center-like spaceport, the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island off China’s southern coast. The sprawling facility saw the maiden liftoffs of two rockets this year: the Long March-7 and a heavy-lifter, the Long March-5. Both boosters are essential to an expansive space agenda, with the latter dedicated to lofting the nation’s multi-modular space station and possibly, quite literally, shooting for the moon.

China is building upon earlier robotic lunar exploits, including unmanned orbiters and a lander that dispatched the nation’s Yutu moon rover in December 2013. Now their multi-pronged plan calls for the robotic spacecraft Chang’e 5 to launch in the second half of 2017 atop a Long March-5 rocket, land on the moon and collect several pounds of lunar samples, then hurl the specimens back to Earth. And on tap in 2018 is the launch of a lander headed for the far side of the moon, which would be a space first for any country. Looking beyond the lunar landscape, China is also busy at work on a Mars rover that is slated for a 2020 liftoff.

Footprints to follow?

Most of this year’s space activity seems targeted toward a goal China has long hinted at, if not officially stated: a human mission to the moon. “China is clearly moving closer and closer to being able to achieve the long-planned culmination of ‘Project 921,’ a large, permanently crewed space station,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. “Once that is achieved, I would not be at all surprised by an official announcement of a human mission to the moon.” Planting Chinese footprints on lunar soil is now in China’s target sights, Johnson-Freese says, after the nation has carefully developed all the necessary capabilities through its Shenzhou and Chang’e programs.

“It is also noteworthy that China now has the world’s largest radio telescope,” Johnson-Freese says, referring to the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) that began operations in September. According to China, FAST has double the sensitivity of the Arecibo Observatory, and five to 10 times the surveying speed. “With that, China appears poised to do the kind of science that can get their country a long coveted Nobel Prize,” she says.

And China’s robotic moon ambitions are similarly thrilling to scientists. The prospect of samples being returned by Chang’e-5 next year—more than four decades since the last ones were snagged by the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976—is tremendously exciting for lunar science, says Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck College in London. “It will be especially interesting if, as seems likely, the new samples are collected from an as yet unsampled region,” Crawford notes. Moreover, if China is successful in making the first landing on the moon’s far side in 2018, that “will be another major technical achievement and scientifically very informative.”

Experts speculate that China is in part pursuing these activities for geopolitical reasons as well as scientific ones, as did the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the early space age. “But I do think it is highly desirable to try to integrate China’s activities into global space exploration activities,” Crawford says. One avenue for doing this, he adds, is via the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), a voluntary, non-binding forum of 14 space agencies that seeks to bolster countries’ individual exploration agendas for the collective good—a group in which the China National Space Administration is a member.

Sphere of influence

China’s recent actions could spark another “Sputnik moment,” some say, spurring other nations to accelerate their space ambitions. In particular, its pursuit of the moon could inspire the U.S. to revisit a seemingly forgotten destination. Our celestial satellite is a strategic asset, says Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and one that has been missing-in-action in current NASA exploration plans. If China’s interest in the moon rejuvenates our own, the U.S. has the opportunity to stimulate private sector jobs while expanding humanity beyond the Earth, he adds. “Next year China will attempt something only the former Soviet Union has done and the United States has not yet managed to do, and that is robotically returning samples from a planetary surface.” Such samples, from an unexplored part of the lunar surface, says Neal, “will have a huge impact on lunar science … but will U.S. scientists be allowed to study these?” Furthermore, executing a rover mission on the far side of the moon, he suggests, “will put China in a class of its own regarding space exploration.”

Neal says it is apparent that China has major space ambitions, as indicated by its development of capabilities for low-Earth orbit, the lunar surface, and Mars. “The Chinese commitment to space is impressive through development of capabilities in a short period of time,” Neal concludes. “Is this their ‘Apollo’ moment?”