Beijing wants to become a space superpower alongside the US and Russia, the only two countries to have so far collected lunar samples. President Xi Jinping hopes to operate a permanent space station called Tiangong (heavenly palace) – planned for as early as 2022 – and send astronauts to the moon, as part of what he calls the country’s “space dream”. The first prototype, Tiangong-1, was launched in 2011 and completed its mission before China lost control of the craft and it crashed into the ocean in 2018. A space laboratory called Tiangong-2 launched in 2016 and made a controlled re-entry in 2019.
As part of China’s space plans, it launched a new rocket and prototype spacecraft in May, called the Long March 5B. China hopes that one day craft like these will take a crew of six to the space station. The Chang’e-5 mission provides an opportunity to test equipment and procedures before the next Tiangong phase.