Don't look now, but I think China just started a new space race.

Is it just me, or does the moon look especially ominous tonight? Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On Saturday, Dec. 14, the Chinese space probe Chang'e-3 completed a 13-day journey to arrive at the moon, settling down for a soft landing on the Bay of Rainbows, and preparing to release a robotic rover called the Jade Rabbit, with which China intends to explore the Sinus Iridum. The least of the rover's activities there will involve blasting ground-penetrating radar to explore what lies beneath the moon's surface, to depths of as much as 300 feet.

That much we know, according to Chinese government sources. But one comment from Lunar and Planetary Institute scientist Paul D. Spudis suggests there might be more to the Chinese mission than meets the eye. Apparently, the Chang'e's landing craft that carried Jade Rabbit to the surface is big enough to carry a payload 12 times more massive than Jade Rabbit accounts for. Which is leading some folks to wonder: What else was in there ... if anything?

What else did the Chinese put up there on the moon?

riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma
The answer, of course, is that for the time being, we do not know. Maybe there's nothing. Maybe Jade Rabbit was all there was to Chang'e's payload. Maybe the Chinese built it 12 times bigger than it needed to be because ... you know, better safe than sorry.

What I do know, though, is that whenever China does something big and unexpected like this, it tends to have pretty outsized effects within the U.S. government. Earlier this decade, for instance, when China started getting more aggressive in its relations with its neighbors in Southeast Asia, President Obama announced a sudden "pivot to the Pacific," emphasizing U.S. military capabilities in that region over capabilities elsewhere on the globe.

Earlier this month, when China unilaterally annexed half the airspace over the East China Sea for its new "Air Defense Identification Zone," it took only a few hours before U.S. bombers started overflying the zone to test what would happen.

What it means to investors
So, too, do I think that China's having just done what no other nation on Earth has done for at least 37 years -- landed a spacecraft, intact, on the moon to conduct experiments in situ -- will prompt a response from the United States.

Mark my words: Some way, somehow, someone in Washington is going to find some money pretty soon to start beefing up NASA's budget, and ramp up U.S. efforts at space exploration.

If I'm right about that, this could mean billions of dollars more for some of the biggest names in U.S. private space exploration. This could include anyone -- or everyone -- from tiny SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (NYSE:OA), all the way up to the two heavyweights of the industry, titans Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), who've together styled themselves America's "United Space Alliance."

The time to start thinking about which of these companies to invest in, is now.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch. Nice work, SpaceX. But can you try to hit the moon next time? Source: SpaceX.

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Orbital Sciences and owns shares of Lockheed Martin. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.