Imaging the Man on the Moon

China has set two more ambitious goals for it's space program this with with the announcement of an unmanned lunar orbiter set to fly later this year, and a probe to Mars in 2009.

The lunar orbiter, scheduled to launch in the second half of this year, will take 3-D images of the moon's surface.  This is the first part of China's lunar landing mission which is slated to occur between 2020 and 2025, right around the same time as NASA plans to return.

An unmanned landing on the moon is expected in 2012 by a six-wheeled rover that is currently under development.  This little robot is expected to have a nuclear power source (rather than a rechargable battery like the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity) which means that it will have one heck of an operational time.  Considering the amount of piracy that comes out of that country, I'm wondering if this machine might be little more than an Opportunity with a nuclear reactor.  While this wouldn't surprise me, I would be curious to know NASA's take on such a revelation.

China's mission to Mars is going to be a joint venture with Russia, and is expected to launch in October of 2009 according to the Shanghai Space Agency.  This mission was first signed back in March, with China contributing the probe and Russia providing the landing vehicle (Phobos-Grunt).

Just to add complexity to the mission, Phobos-Grunt is designed to take rock samples from the Martian soil and return them to Earth.  Hopefully the samples will not be contaminated upon entry into the atmosphere, as this could provide a few more clues about the Red Planet's history.  What I find odd, though, is this return to Earth.  If China were to send more nuclear-powered machines to Mars, then these robots could be designed to run semi-autonomous and carry an array of specialized instruments.  This could prevent any unwanted contamination of the samples and allow the scientific community at large more access to the Martian topography.

Perhaps with this undeclared race to learn more about our closest celestial bodies, NASA can be granted more funding in an effort to complete large hurtles before the Chinese.  This could be the next classic battle between East and West.