China sets sights on moon’s south pole, with ESA collaboration talks ongoing

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This article originally appeared in the April 23, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

China is working on plans to extend its Chang’e robotic lunar program to explore the moon’s south pole in the 2020s and is already engaging in talks with the European Space Agency on possible cooperation.

China has been engaged in a three-step project to orbit, land on and collect samples from the moon since the early 2000s and, with the final stage close to being realized, a new long-term vision for further exploration is in the works.

At the 49th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas last month Zou Yongliao, a senior figure within China’s lunar exploration projects at the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC), gave the latest version of future lunar objectives.

The overall plan, which follows three years of science and technical studies, is to expand the Chang’e (moon goddess) project to establish a robotic “research station” on the moon’s south pole through three-to-four missions across the 2020s, including combined lander, rover and “flying detector” missions and sample return spacecraft.

Science objectives include studying the distribution, content and source of water and volatiles; ascertaining the age and history of the South Pole Aitken Basin; and making Earth-moon Very Long Baseline Interferometry observations.

Technical demonstrations and verifications outlined in the still somewhat vague vision include carrying out lunar resource in-situ utilization tests and “bio-scientific experiments,” as well as testing rare-gas extraction from lunar regolith and 3D-printing. The technologies would likely be extremely valuable to potential future human lunar habitats.

Ian Crawford, professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck, University of London, told SpaceNews that the objectives are inline with international priorities for exploration of the moon and the south pole, specifically.

“Searching for volatiles at the poles of the moon and confirming whether or not there is water ice in permanently shadowed areas of the moon are high scientific priorities for all spacefaring nations,” Crawford said, also noting plans and interest from private companies.

China won’t launch Chang’e-5 lunar mission until the required Long March 5 rocket has performed two consecutive successful launches. Credit: Xinhua
China won’t launch Chang’e-5 lunar mission until the required LongMarch 5 rocket has performed two consecutive successful launches. Credit: Xinhua

Crawford says that while the plans are not original in the sense that other agencies and even companies have similar ideas, a lunar landing with even a small-scale 3D printing test using lunar regolith would be a very valuable mission.

“If China is able to implement it sooner than everybody else, because they have the hardware and capabilities to do it, then it would be a very exciting demonstration. If 3D printing works on a planetary surface, it would greatly reduce the mass you need to launch in order explore, because you can make use of local material for components or even habitats.”

The mission concepts and exploration overview are being developed by the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, the Chinese government body overseeing the country’s space activities, with the involvement of lunar and planetary scientists.

While the new Chinese plans have not been formally approved – it would be part of the next government Five Year Plan, covering the period 2021-2025 – the go-ahead could be given following a successful Chang’e-5 sample return mission in the next couple of years.

ESA exploring cooperation possibilities

At this relatively early stage, the European Space Agency is in talks with Chinese counterparts to explore the possibilities for collaboration in the project.

“The European Space Agency is engaging in exploratory talks with China concerning cooperation in future robotic lunar exploration,” Karl Bergquist, ESA’s international relations administrator, told SpaceNews.

Europe has been seeking coordination of lunar exploration plans with China and others as part of agency ESA Director-General Jan Woerner’s ‘Moon Village’ concept and has previously provided ground support for China’s three lunar missions to date.

Bergquist added that ESA is also discussing collaboration on analysis of moon samples to be returned by Chang’e-5.

China’s Chang’e-5 mission was due to launch in November 2017, but the failure of the required Long March 5 launch vehicle last July has bumped it back into 2019 at the earliest.

Wu Ji, the former director of the National Space Science Centre in Beijing, said at Space Science Week in Washington last month, that Chang’e-5 would launch only after two consecutive successful flights of the Long March 5.

When it does fly, Chang’e-5 will target an area near Mons Rümker in Oceanus Procellarum and could return by far the youngest regolith samples yet.

The mission will attempt to bring up to two kilograms of lunar material to Earth, and Crawford notes that if the mission, which in itself is scientifically valuable, were to be successful, it would further underline China’s ability to achieve ambitious lunar objectives.

The original three-stage Chinese Lunar Exploration Program was initiated in the early 2000s to orbit, soft-land and rove on, and finally return samples from the moon, with stage having a dedicated mission and a backup.

China succeeded with two orbiter missions, Chang’e-1 (2007) and Chang’e-2 (2010), and a soft-landing on Mare Imbrium in 2013 with Chang’e-3.

The next mission will be Chang’e-4, using the backup Chang’e-3 lander and rover spacecraft. It has been repurposed for an unprecedented attempt to touch down on the lunar far side in December this year, with communications to be facilitated by a relay satellite which will launch in May or June, operating from a halo orbit around the second Earth-moon Lagrange point.

The target landing area will be within the South Pole-Aitken Basin, a huge impact crater noted in U.S. National Academies of Sciences decadal surveys as an area of great scientific interest and a priority for investigation. Insitu and sample return analysis of the area could provide invaluable insights into the history of the moon and the early periods of the solar system.