HELSINKI — China has charted its course for robotic and crewed lunar and space exploration, with a number of missions to a permanent lunar base.
Three upcoming robotic missions will set up landers, orbiters, relay satellites and test key technologies needed to begin construction of China’s International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in the 2030s.
While China is now planning a short-term crewed lunar landing mission before the end of the decade, ILRS will initially be a robotic base that will be permanently habitable after 2035.
China is currently working on launching the Chang’e-6, 7 and 8 mission in the coming years to lay the groundwork for the largest moon base initiative, senior space official Wu Weiren told China Central Television (CCTV) after the conclusion of the four-day United Nations/China Global Partnership Workshop on Space Exploration and Innovation in Haikou, island province of Hainan, on November 24.
Chang’e-6, a backup of the success of 2020 Chang’e-5 return of lunar samples, will attempt to collect up to two kilograms of material from the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the far side of the moon in 2026. The landing is expected to take place at a latitude similar to the Chang’ landing. e-4 in 2019 Von Karman Crater due to engineering constraints.
A new lunar relay satellite will also be launched to facilitate communications with missions targeting the vicinity of the moon’s south pole. Chang’e-7 will be launched around 2026 and will consist of an orbiter, a lander, a rover and a “mini flying detector” to study the lunar topography, material composition and environment, the latter spacecraft to search for the presence of water ice.
The mission will aim to investigate permanent shadow areas at the lunar south pole and the United States and China have overlapping target landing zones In the region.
“We hope that Chang’e-7 will use its jump detector to investigate one or two of these craters and find out if there is water inside,” Wu said.
Chang’e-8, currently scheduled to launch around 2028, will be an in-situ test mission of resource utilization and 3D printing technology. The infrastructure launched under these missions will serve as the foundation to support the broader ILRS initiative.
China is also working on a crewed lunar landing before 2030. The mission would use two launches from an underdeveloped next generation crew launcher to send three astronauts to the moon, seeing two of them resting on the surface for about six hours. The required spacecraft and lunar lander are under development.
The ILRS will see five launches in the early 2030s to establish n-orbit and surface infrastructure for power, communications, in situ resource utilization and other technologies.
These missions will require the lifting capacity of Long March 9 super heavy rocket, which officials recently announced will undergone changes in its design to make it reusable. Previous plans called for the Long March 9 rocket to be expendable.
The South China Morning Post also reported that Wu said China was working on a “new system that uses nuclear energy to meet the long-term, high-powered energy needs of the lunar station.”
Wu has been a strong advocate for these technologies to power space exploration, including missions in the edges of the solar system. In August, a megawatt-level reactor designed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences passed a key exam.
Unveiled in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in June 2021, the the plan provides five missions named ILRS-1 through 5 focusing respectively on energy and communications, research and exploration facilities, in situ resource utilization, general technologies and astronomy capabilities.
“We are preparing to work with other countries to build the International Lunar Research Station and call on them to join us in carrying out the design and surveys and subsequent sharing of scientific data…We hope to complete the construction of ILRS by 2035, and we also hope that it will become a national science mega project,” Wu said.
China’s current partner in this endeavor is Russia, which is committed to integrating its planned Luna missions into the initiative and contributing to super-heavy launcher missions.
China declared its openness to international partnerships for ILRS and deep-space missions at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Paris in September, but Russia was not mentioned in the plans.
The omission of China’s main partner was likely due to sensitivity to the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the situation poses a dilemma for China in its attempt to expand cooperation.
Wu also reiterated China’s plans for a near-Earth asteroid sample return mission, Mars Sample Returnsending twin probes to opposite ends of the heliosphere, a mission aimed Jupiter and Uranus, and one planetary defense test.
This latest asteroid deflecting mission will include both a survey spacecraft and an impactor, Wu said, targeting an object with a diameter of about 30 meters, revealed earlier to be 2020 PN1.
Wu also hinted at even bigger plans. “In the next 15 years, I think we should start preparing for sending humans to Mars, and we should leave Chinese people’s footprints on the moon,” Wu said.
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