HELSINKI — China has revealed a concept for a lunar lander it hopes will put astronauts on the moon around the end of the decade.

A model of the Chinese lunar lander was unveiled at an exhibition to mark three decades of China’s human spaceflight program Feb. 24 at the National Museum of China in Beijing.

The model shows that China is working on a staged descent concept, which differs from the Apollo landings. A propulsion stage will be used for most of the descent, before the lander segment completes a powered descent and soft landing on the lunar surface. 

The propulsion stage will be designed to make a separate, hard landing while needing to mitigate the potential dangers of debris. The lander will also act as the ascent vehicle to take the crew back into lunar orbit and dock with a waiting crew spacecraft.

Details on the model show thrusters, a stowed lunar rover, docking mechanisms, a crew hatch and a ladder for astronauts to descend to surface, antennae and other equipment.

The lander is part of a plan to take two astronauts to the lunar surface by around 2030, according to previously announced plans by Chinese space authorities. Meanwhile, work on other key elements continues.

“We have made breakthroughs in key technologies for the new-generation crew carrier rocket, the new-generation crew spacecraft, the lunar lander and the spacesuit for landing on the moon,” Ji Qiming, assistant to director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), told CCTV Feb. 24

China is already working on a new-generation crew launch vehicle to launch a new-generation crew spacecraft. The latter has a boilerplate test mission in 2020. It will be partially reusable and larger and more capable than China’s current Shenzhou crew spacecraft.

The new launcher will come in low Earth orbit and triple-core lunar configurations. Its developer CASC is targeting a test flight of the LEO version in 2027. 

The launcher has also now gained the designation of Long March 10, according to information presented alongside its model at the exhibition.

“An implementation plan for the lunar landing stage with Chinese characteristics has taken shape. This year, we will fully implement our research and construction tasks for the lunar landing phase as scheduled,” Ji added.

The initial landing mission is intended to be a short-term stay on the order of a few hours. The crewed lunar landing capabilities are however part of a grander plan for a permanent lunar habitat.

“At the same time, we will also carry out a series of preliminary studies on the long-term stay of astronauts on the lunar surface, and the development and utilization of lunar resources, so as to lay a technical foundation for future lunar exploration missions of the Chinese people,” Ji said.

China in 2021 formally announced a plan for an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) to be constructed in the 2030s. It will initially be robotic then made suitable for long-term habitation by crew.

The ILRS project includes Russia as a key partner. However China did not mention Russia during a presentation of its lunar plans at a major international space conference last fall. Russia faces isolation from the international community over its invasion of Ukraine.

China last year stated it was scrapping plans for an expendable Long March 9 super heavy-lift rocket for lunar and other space infrastructure and replacing it with a reusable version. This will likely see the test flight delayed into the 2030s, also impacting the schedule for the ILRS.

China’s crewed lunar landing plan is not formally approved by the Chinese government, but this is likely as its time frame is beyond the scope of the current national Five-year plan.

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.”

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...