China has formally approved three missions aimed at the lunar south pole, with the first to launch around 2024.
The missions dubbed Chang’e 6, Chang’e 7 and Chang’e 8 will be launched in the 2020s, each with different objectives and a range of spacecraft. The trio constitutes the so-called fourth phase for Chinese lunar exploration program, which last landed on the moon in December last year with a test-return mission called Chang’e 5.
Wu Yanhua, deputy chief of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), told China Central Television (CCTV) in a recent interview that the three missions had been approved.
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Chang’e 7 will be the first to launch; Wu did not provide a timeline, but previous reporting indicates a hopeful launch around 2024, with the mission to include an orbiter, a relay satellite, a lander, a rover and a “mini flying vessel” designed to seek evidence of ice at the moon’s south pole.
The various component spacecraft will carry one range of scientific instruments including cameras, a radar instrument, an infrared spectrum of mineral images, a thermometer, a seismograph, and a water molecule analyzer; The mission will tackle objectives, including remote sensing, resource identification and conducting a comprehensive study of the lunar environment. China’s largest rocket, Long March 5, will be required to launch the 18,000-pound (8,200 kg) mission.
Next is coming Shift 6, which was first thought of as a backup for the Chang’e 5 trial-return mission. The new mission will seek to build on the success of its predecessor by collecting the first rock samples ever from the moon’s south pole and delivering them to Earth. China has said the mission will also carry scientific payloads being developed in France and Italy, and potentially Russia and Sweden as well.
Chang’e 8 will be launched later this decade and will be a step towards establishing a joint International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) with Russia and potentially other partners. The mission is expected to test technology for using local resources and manufacturing with 3D printing, according to former Chinese press releases.
“The main purpose of these three missions is for China to build the basic model of a lunar research station in cooperation with Russia, where China is taking the lead,” Wu told CCTV. “The construction of the station can lay a solid foundation for us to better explore the moon’s environment and resources, including how to peacefully use and develop the moon’s resources.”
The ILRS plan includes the development of a robot base, which could later be expanded to allow astronauts to make long-term stays on the moon’s surface in the 2030s. The project is separate from the US-led Artemis program, which seeks to return astronauts to the moon in the coming years. Artemis 1, an unmanned mission around the moon, is currently aiming for a launch in the spring of 2022.
China currently serves the Chang’e 4 lander and the Yutu 2 rover on the other side of the moon; the pair made the first landing ever on the far side of the moon in 2019. Yutu 2 is currently exploring rocks on the horizon called “mystery hut“of a Chinese space channel.
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