A mosaic of Shackleton Crater near the luanr south pole, showing the depths of the crater. The illuminated rim area will be targeted by China's Chang'e-7 mission.
A mosaic of Shackleton Crater created by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera and ShadowCam teams. Credit: NASA/KARI/ASU

HELSINKI — China will attempt to land on the illuminated rim of Shackleton crater near the lunar south pole with its 2026 Chang’e-7 mission.

Chang’e-7 will target one of a handful of sites thought to offer exceptionally long periods of illumination at the lunar south pole, according to a recently-published journal article.

The area, stated to be the illuminated rim of Shackleton crater, possibly corresponds to a candidate landing site for NASA’s Artemis 3 crewed mission named Peak Near Shackleton.

Such a site could offer favorable illumination while also being close to permanently shadowed regions which could host volatiles such as water-ice.

Chang’e-7 aims to provide valuable data for future lunar exploration and the potential utilization of lunar resources. The mission also is a cornerstone for China’s plans to establish an international lunar base in the 2030s. 

China’s preparatory plans to establish its International Lunar Research Base (ILRS) include the Chang’e-8 south polar resource utilization mission. This is planned to launch no earlier than 2028.

Together the Chang’e-7 and -8 mission will form a basic outline of the ILRS, according to earlier announcements. 

China is currently attempting to attract partners to the ILRS. Egypt is the most recent country to sign up, in December 2023. 

The multi-component Chang’e-7 mission will feature an orbiter, a lander, a rover and a mini-flying probe. These will investigate the lunar south pole’s environment and resources with the support of a communications relay satellite. 

The latter, named Queqiao-2, is expected to launch in the coming months to support upcoming and ongoing missions.

Science objectives

The article, published late December in National Science Review, lays out a series of science objectives. These include detecting lunar soil water ice and volatile components, studying lunar morphology, composition and structure. It also names payloads, including a seismometer, ground-penetrating radar, magnetometer, spectrometers and more.

The return from the mission could be transformational for science and human exploration, Clive Neal, a professor and lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame, told SpaceNews.

“Obtaining seismic data from the south pole will be important if the seismometer can record for an extended period of time, as it can show the severity of shallow moonquake activity at the south pole,” Neal says. 

“Shallow moonquakes were shown by the Apollo seismic data to potentially have body wave magnitudes between 5 and 6 with maximum ground amplitude lasting up to 10 minutes. While no shallow moonquakes fell within the narrow aperture of the Apollo passive seismic network, at least one was estimated to originate from the south polar region. 

“Therefore, CE-7 seismic will inform how to construct the ILRS and the Artemis base camp such that they can withstand such high magnitude seismic events.”

Chang’e-7 will also focus on volatiles. The mini-flying probe will carry a single payload, the Lunar Soil Water Molecule Analyzer (LSWMA). This is designed to collect water molecule and hydrogen isotope data at a specified site. 

The Lunar Neutron Gamma Spectrometer (LNGS) aboard the orbiter will be tasked with ascertaining the distribution and source of lunar water ice in the lunar south pole region and permanently shadowed areas.

Chang’e-7 Science Objectives
1Distribution and origins of lunar soil water ice and volatile components.
2Study of lunar morphology, composition, and structure.
3Detection and research of the moon’s internal structure, magnetic field, and thermal characteristics.
4Comprehensive detection and research of the lunar south pole lunar surface environment.
5Moon-based detection and research of the Earth’s magnetotail and plasma layer.
6Lunar-Earth VLBI measurement experiments and observation studies.

The first step for Chang’e-7 will be the launch of the Queqiao-2 relay satellite.

Queqiao-2 is set to launch on a Long March 8 rocket from the coastal Wenchang spaceport in early 2024, an official with the satellite’s developer said in October. That launch could take place as soon as February.

The 1,200-kilogram satellite will feature a 4.2-meter-diameter parabolic antenna and a mission lifetime of more than eight years. 

Queqiao-2 will initially support the unprecedented Chang’e-6 lunar far side sample return mission, expected to launch around May. It will also assist the continued operations of the Chang’e-4 lunar far side lander and rover mission.

The relay satellite will also carry three payloads which will play a role in the overall Chang’e-7 science objectives. Queqiao-2 will operated in a 24-hour-period, elliptical frozen orbit to support Chang’e-6. It will change to a similar, 12-hour-period orbit for missions 7 and 8.

International cooperation

The China National Space Administration announced opportunities to join the Chang’e-7 mission in early 2023. 

The National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT) agreement to join ILRS. This coincided with a payload proposed by the institute being announced as accepted to join the Chang’e-7 mission. 

The United Arab Emirates and China signed a memorandum of understanding in September 2022 for the UAE to fly a small lunar rover on the mission. This plan was later reported to have been hit by U.S. ITAR rules. The recent paper does not mention the rover nor the NARIT payload.

The journal paper provides a list of payloads to fly on the five separate Chang’e-7 spacecraft.

Scientific PayloadNameFunctionSpacecraft
1LOVEXMoon-Earth VLBI measurement and observation experimentRelay Satellite (Queqiao-2)
2GENAEnergetic Neutral Atom Imager for Earth’s magnetotail imagingRelay Satellite (Queqiao-2)
3EUCExtreme Ultraviolet Camera for Earth’s plasmasphere observationRelay Satellite (Queqiao-2)
4HRSMCHigh-Resolution Stereo Mapping CameraOrbiter
5MSARMiniature Synthetic Aperture RadarOrbiter
6WISMIAInfrared Spectrum Mineral Imaging AnalyzerOrbiter
7LNGSLunar Neutron Gamma SpectrometerOrbiter
8LOMLunar Orbit MagnetometerOrbiter
9LSLunar SeismographLander
10LSEDSLunar Surface Environment Detection SystemLander
11LCLanding CameraLander
12TCTopography CameraLander
13PCPanoramic CameraRover
14RMRover MagnetometerRover
15LRSLunar Raman SpectrometerRover
16LPRLunar Penetrating RadarRover
17IsMSVIn-situ Measuring System of Volatiles on Lunar SurfaceRover
18LSWMALunar Soil Water Molecule AnalyzerMini-Flying Probe
List of payloads for China’s Chang’e-7 mission.

Chang’e-7 is currently scheduled to launch on a Long March 5 rocket in 2026 from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center.

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...