What are China's Moon Plans?
With the China National Space Administration (CNSA) successfully landing their Chang’e 4 lander and Yutu-2 rover in January 2019, China has now had two successful landings on the Moon. Their first successful landing with Chang’e 3 was also the first soft landing on the lunar surface since the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976. China’s most recent landing with Chang’e 4 is an even greater accomplishment as it is the first time any spacecraft has landed on the Moon’s far side. These missions are just the start of China’s ultimate goals for lunar exploration.
The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) is the CNSA program which operates robotic Moon missions. Started in 2003, CLEP has launched two lunar orbiters (Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2), and the two lunar landers (Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4). All CLEP missions use China’s Long March rockets and Chinese controlled Telemetry, Tracking, and Command (TT&C) system.
China recently revealed more details on CLEP’s future missions, including a lunar sample return mission prior to 2020. This mission will be accomplished by Chang’E-5 that is slated to head for the moon by the end of 2019 and return samples to Earth soon after.
Chang’e 5 will also study topography, mineral composition, and regolith. The mission’s defining capability is being able to collect and return up to 2 kg (4.4 lb) of lunar material.
After Chang’e 5, three mission are confirmed as a next phase, which will build a prototype robotic lunar research station. Additional missions beyond this are in planning and focus on establishing a robotic research station. The Chang’e 5 sample return mission will satisfy China’s three phase CLEP.
The next set of missions will be part of a goal to build a prototype robotic lunar research station at the Moon’s south pole before 2030. The first mission to begin this will be Chang’e 6, which is planned to launch in 2020 and return samples from the lunar south pole. After that, Chang’e 7 (Chang’e P1) is planned to go to the Moon’s south pole region in 2023, where it will study terrain features, composition, and environment conditions.
The last confirmed follow-on mission, Chang’e 8 (Chang’e P2) is planned for 2026, and will also go to the lunar south pole where it will test technologies needed to build a research station on the Moon. This includes the testing of technologies like 3-D printing to build structures using in-situ materials, such as lunar regolith.
These missions are all a precursor for China’s post-2030 goal of building a robotic lunar research station that can support long term research and large scale utilization in support of human space missions.
The future goal of a lunar research station is one shared by many countries, including China. China’s ambitions for such a station recognize this. The CLEP plans for after 2030 call for an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). This station would include in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), lunar-based observation, lunar environment and resource prospecting, robotic scientific research and technology development, and a long-term energy supply and autonomous infrastructure.
As the famous proverb states, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This summarizes the past and present success China has had with their lunar exploration, and promises to hold true with their future ambitions.