The rivalry between Asia’s two biggest countries has extended into outer space.
After India’s landing of its Chandrayaan-3 rover on the moon last month—becoming the first country to put a spacecraft near the lunar south pole and breaking China’s record for the southernmost lunar landing—a top Chinese scientist has said claims about the accomplishment are overstated.
Ouyang Ziyuan, lauded as the father of China’s lunar exploration program, told the Chinese-language Science Times newspaper that the Chandrayaan-3 landing site, at 69 degrees south latitude, was nowhere close to the pole, defined as between 88.5 and 90 degrees.
On Earth, 69 degrees south would be within the Antarctic Circle, but the lunar version of the circle is much closer to the pole.
“It’s wrong!” he said of claims for an Indian polar landing. “The landing site of Chandrayaan-3 is not at the lunar south pole, not in the lunar south pole region, nor is it near the lunar south pole region.”
The Chandrayaan-3 was 619 kilometers (385 miles) distant from the polar region, Ouyang said.
India’s space agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
After the Chandrayaan-3 landing, the Communist Party’s Global Times quoted Pang Zhihao, a Beijing-based senior space expert, as saying that China had much better technology.
China’s space program “has been capable of sending orbiters and landers directly into Earth-Moon transfer orbit since the launch of Chang’e-2 in 2010, a maneuver that India has yet to deliver given the limited capacity of its launch vehicles,” the newspaper said. “The engine that China used is also far more advanced.”
Still, the Chandrayaan-3 went much farther south than any other spacecraft. Russia’s attempt to land a spacecraft near the lunar south pole ended in failure last month when it crashed into the moon.
Getting close to the lunar south pole is important not just for bragging rights. Scientists think the region may have ice reserves that could potentially be valuable for long-term stays.
The U.S. and China are both looking to the area for their upcoming plans to send astronauts to the moon for the first time since NASA’s Apollo program ended a half century ago.
—With assistance from Daniela Wei, Linda Lew and Ragini Saxena.
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