Sunday, January 17, 2016

China to Make First Landing on Far Side of Moon in 2018

China's Yutu rover on the moon. Credit: CNSA

China has specified its lunar exploration plans, announcing lately that it will soft land a probe on the far side of the moon in 2018. If successful, the country will become first nation to land a spacecraft on a lunar hemisphere invisible from the Earth. China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) has revealed that the planned Chang'e-4 mission will consist of a lander, rover and a relay satellite. Liu Jizhong, chief of the lunar exploration center under SASTIND, added that the mission will be very similar to Chang'e-3 in structure but it would be able to handle more payload.

Chang’e-4 will be probably launched by China’s workhorse Long March 3B rocket from the Xichang Statellite Launch Center, located in Sichuan Province.

The mission will study dust features and its formation mechanism, perform in-situ measurement of lunar surface residual magnetism and study its interaction with solar wind. The far side of the moon has a clean electromagnetic environment, which provides an ideal field for low frequency radio study, according to Zou Yongliao from the moon exploration department under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The proposed relay satellite will be launched into a lunar transfer orbit earlier than the lander and rover and will enter and run in a Halo orbit around the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrangian point, located about 37,282 miles (60,000 km) beyond the moon. It is the best location for a communications satellite covering moon's far side.

The satellite would provide relay service for the lander, rover and the Earth, and would carry out exploration. It is expected to be operational for three years. It will be crucial for China to develop technologies of lunar data relay for further missions.

China intends to cooperate with other nations over Chang’e-4 as it has sent invitations to foreign countries in early 2015. Participants could launch their own lunar probes as a secondary payload. They could also provide some scientific payloads or other small experimental equipment which will be carried by the lander, rover or satellite.

Chang’e-4 is also perceived as the next important step for China towards manned missions to the moon. The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), the country’s premier space launch vehicle manufacturer, has recently announced a super-large interstage ring to be used to connect stages of the next-generation Long March 9 rocket, expected to embark on its maiden flight around 2030. The booster will play a key role in sending taikonauts to the moon. Chang’e-4’s detailed study of the lunar environment will play essential role in preparation of future crewed missions.

The country is also developing the Chang'e-5 lunar probe to finish the last chapter in China's three-step moon exploration program, consisting of orbiting, landing and return. The mission is expected to achieve several breakthroughs, including automatic sampling, ascending from the moon without a launch site and an unmanned docking above the lunar surface. Chang’e-5 will be launched around 2017.

China, after the success of the Chang'e-3 mission became the third country after the Soviet Union and the United States to soft land a spacecraft on lunar soil. The probe that landed on the moon in December 2013 is still sending messages back to Earth.

With the launch of the Belintersat-1 satellite for Belarus on Friday, Jan. 15, China started a very busy year in terms of sending payloads to orbit. In 2016, the country intends to carry out more than 20 space missions.

China also plans to return to the business of human space flight this year and conduct maiden launches of the next-generation Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets. Shenzhou-11, a planned crewed mission, is slated to lift off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center and dock with China’s second planned space station, Tiangong-2, which should be on orbit by the time the crew’s Shenzhou spacecraft is sent aloft. The exact launch dates for these missions have yet to be released.

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