The past, present, and future of China’s deep-space exploration

Today’s blog has been written by PhD student Xiaojia Zeng who is visiting our research group on a scholarship from the the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Xiaojia is researching the geological evolution of several lunar meteorites. Below he outlines Chinese planetary exploration efforts.


 

Over the past five decades or so, planetary exploration activities have been carried out by United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and India. From 2007, China has also emerged in the arena of planetary space exploration, most notably for its robotic exploration of the Moon (the Chang’e-1, Chang’e-2, and Chang’e-3 missions). At present, China is aiming to return samples from lunar surface (Chang’e-5 mission), explore the lunar far side with a robotic lander (Chang’e-4 mission), and collect a sample from the far side of the Moon (Chang’e-6). In the future, China also plans to robotically explore the surface of Mars by 2020, land on the Moon with humans by 2036 as well as explore the asteroid belt and Venus.logo

The past: Chang’e-1, Chang’e-2, and Chang’e-3

The Chinese lunar exploration Program (CLEP, the logo is present on the right) is divided into three main operational phases: orbital missions, soft-landing missions, and sample return missions.

China launched its first lunar probe, Chang’e-1, in October 24, 2007. The successful Orbiting of Chang’e-1 is the first step of the three-phase moon mission. There were four main scientific goals of Chang’E-1: (1) Obtaining the 3D images of the landforms and global geologic unites of the lunar surface. (2) Analyzing the abundance and distribution of the 14 chemical elements key for understanding surface geological variation (e.g. K, Th, U, Si). (3) Estimating the thickness of lunar regolith and the amount of helium-3 (a potentially future resource). (4) Probing the near Moon space environment. During this mission, Chang’e-1 conducted the world’s first passive, multi-channel, microwave remote sensing investigation of the Moon.

Chang’e-2, launched in 2010, was a follow-up to the Chang’e-1 lunar probe. After completing its primary lunar scientific objectives, Chang’e-2 then left lunar orbit and to perform its extended mission to test the Chinese tracking and control network, and then go on to explore the asteroid 4179 Toutatis).

Chang’e-1 orbiter (left) and Chang’e-2 orbiter (right) [Both images from http://image.baidu.com%5D

The present: Chang’e-5, Chang’e-4, and Chang’e-6

The Chang’e-3 spacecraft, the second step of the CLEP, touched down on the northern Mare Imbrium of the lunar nearside (340.49°E, 44.12°N) in December 2013. It includes a robotic lander (Chang’e-3) and a large lunar rover named Yutu. This was the first soft landing on the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. The landing site, Mare Imbrium (located on the lunar nearside), is in a region which has not directly visited before. The surface and sub-surface of this region have been explored by Yutu equipped with Panoramic Camera, Lunar Penetrating Radar (LPR), Visible–Near Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS), and Active Particle-Induced X-ray Spectrometer (APXS). Base on the date acquired by Yutu, the sub-surface structure, volcanic history, and basaltic rock type have been investigated and published.

Chang’e-3 lander (left) and Yutu rover (right) [Both images from http://english.nssc.cas.cn%5D

The next step of China’s ambitious three-stage lunar exploration programme, returning lunar sample to Earth, will commence in 2017 with Chang’e-5, which will be launched by a huge new rocket, the Long March 5. If Chang’e-5 is successful, it will be the first lunar sample return since Luna 24 by the USSR in 1976.

Chang’e-4, a static lander platform which was originally a back-up for Chang’e-3, will now be launched by the end of 2018. Since it is re-purposed to land on the far side of the Moon it will be the first ever controlled landing to be made on the lunar far side. The potential landing spots are still to be decided but possibilities include the Aitken impact basin.

The final Chang’e series mission, Chang’e-6, is expected to land on the Moon before 2020. Chang’e-6 could also be used for a sample return mission from the Moon, probably from the far side. This probe will also be launched by Long March 5 rocket in Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

China’s new Long March 5 rocket, which will be used for launching Chang’e-5 (left) and a model of Chang’e-5 (right) [Both images from http://image.baidu.com%5D

The future: Mars exploration, manned lunar exploration, explore the asteroid and Venus……

The first Chinese probe designed to study Mars, Yinghuo-1, was carried by Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft in 2011. However, the Phobos-Grunt mission unfortunately crashed after lift-off, leading this mission failure. After that experience, China started its own Mars project. In 2016, China’s Mars Exploration Project was been officially approved. The Mars probe, to be launched around 2020, is expected to orbit the red planet, land and deploy a rover all in one mission. China also plans to collect samples of Mars for returning to Earth around 2030.

According to the planes of China’s deep-space planetary exploration, 9 or 10 missions would be implemented before 2030. These activities will mainly focus on exploring the planet Venus with an orbitor, monitoring solar activity and visiting main-belt asteroid for sample-return.

Moreover, China also wants to put astronauts on the Moon by 2036, the latest goal in China’s ambitious lunar exploration programme.

A 1:3 scale model of China’s Martian probe (left) and a 1:1 scale model of China’s planned Mars rover (right) [Both images from http://www.xinhuanet.com%5D

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Find out more about about China’s deep-space exploration:

China National Space Administration (http://www.cnsa.gov.cn/n360696/index.html)

National Space Science Center, Chinese Academy of Sciences (http://english.nssc.cas.cn)

The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deep-space Exploration (http://moon.bao.ac.cn)

CCTV news (http://english.cntv.cn/news/space)

People’s Daily Online (http://en.people.cn/90002/91752/index.html)

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About Katherine Joy

Hello! I am Katherine Joy. I am part of the University of Manchester Isotope Geochemistry and Cosmochemistry group. More details about my research interests can be found at http://www.seaes.manchester.ac.uk/people/staff/profile/?ea=katherine.joy
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