HELSINKI — China is formalizing its plans to land a pair of astronauts on the surface of the moon before the end of the decade.

A preliminary plan to put two astronauts on the moon for a short period to conduct scientific tasks and collect samples was presented by Zhang Hailian, deputy chief designer with the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), at the 9th China (International) Commercial Aerospace Forum in Wuhan, Hubei province, July 12.

The mission envisions a crewed spacecraft and lander segments launching separately on a pair of under-development Long March 10 rockets. The crew spacecraft and landing stack will rendezvous and dock in lunar orbit ahead of a moon landing attempt.

A new-generation crew spacecraft will have a mass of 26 tons and be capable of deep space flight and high-velocity atmospheric reentry. China has already carried out a full scale boilerplate flight test of a version of a new-gen spacecraft in a relatively high orbit.

The landing segment will consist of a lander and a propulsion stage with a total mass of around 26 tons. The propulsion stage will be used for entering lunar orbit and descent towards the lunar surface. The lander will be capable of soft landing on the moon and returning the astronauts to lunar orbit.

The lander will be equipped with four 7500N variable thrust engines. Zhang said the mission is very sensitive to mass constraints, meaning a lightweight design and integrated designs are necessary. “We also need to take advanced materials and structures to improve the structural efficiency and strictly control the weight,” Zhang said.

A lunar rover will also be part of the mission profile. It will have a mass of 200 kilograms, accommodate two astronauts and have a range of 10 kilometers. 

A spacesuit is being developed for lunar surface operations with a working time of no less than eight hours, Zhang said. It will aid astronauts in walking, climbing, driving and operating machines on the moon.

The Long March 10 will be a three-stage rocket with three, five-meter-diameter cores for its first stage. It will be capable of sending 27 tons of payload to trans-lunar injection. 

The test launch of the Long March 10A—a two-stage, low Earth orbit version of the larger rocket—is set for 2027. CASC recently reported progress on testing of the 130-ton-thrust kerosene-liquid oxygen engines for the rocket.

CMSA additionally July 17 announced a call for proposals for science payloads to travel on the lunar lander. The call is open to research institutions, universities and high-tech enterprises. Proposals should focus on fields of study including lunar geology, physics, observation, space life sciences and in-situ resource utilization.

The new details follow an announcement by the CMSA in May that China plans to land its astronauts on the moon for the first time by 2030. 

Senior lunar scientists have in the last couple of years claimed to state media that China would possess the capabilities to land crew on the moon before the end of the decade. China has long been working on the various components required for crewed lunar missions. THese include a new crew spacecraft, new launchers and a lunar lander

The mission aims at being more than a flags and footprints campaign. China is planning to build a moon base in the 2030s known as the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

China plans a series of robotic missions across the 2020s as precursors to the ILRS. These include the 2026 Chang’e-7 orbiter, lander, rover and “mini flying detector” lunar south pole mission. Chang’e-8, currently scheduled for launch around 2028, will be an in-situ resource utilization and 3D-printing technology test mission.

China’s space activities have expanded greatly in recent years. The country has greatly increased its launch rate and completed an indigenous GNSS system and a crewed space station.

A space white paper published in January 2022 stated that China will “continue studies and research on the plan for a human lunar landing… and research key technologies to lay a foundation for exploring and developing cislunar space.”

Future plans include the ILRS and an unprecedented Mars sample return mission. The country however currently faces economic challenges which could dampen the growth on which these plans are predicated. NASA’s Mars sample return plans are currently facing scrutiny and concern over the status and cost of the mission.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...