UAE rover to fly on China’s Chang’e-7 lunar south pole mission

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PARIS — The United Arab Emirates will fly its Rashid 2 rover on China’s 2026 Chang’e-7 lunar landing mission following an agreement between the two countries. 

A memorandum of understanding was signed Sept. 16 by H.E. Salem Humaid AlMarri, Director General of MBRSC, and Wu Yanhua, Vice Administrator of CNSA, marking a first instance of cooperation between the two for a space mission.

Chang’e-7 is a multi-spacecraft mission involving an orbiter, lander, rover and a small, repetitive movable lander for investigating shadowed craters. The surface spacecraft will be supported by a relay satellite operating in an inclined, highly elliptical lunar orbit.

The mission will now also carry the small UAE rover which will be developed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC) in Dubai. No specifications for the vehicle have so far been released.

Launch of Chang’e-7 is currently expected in late 2026, according to Chinese reports. Earlier Chinese mission plans suggested that the mission could launch around 2024 and before the Chang’e-6 sample return.

The spacecraft will have a combined mass of around 8 tons and launch on a Long March 5 rocket.

Some of the mission’s apparent candidate landing sites overlap with those recently selected as possible landing areas for NASA’s Artemis 3 crewed mission. 

China, the U.S. and others are interested in areas of the south polar region which provide good lighting conditions, safe landing areas and proximity to permanently shadowed craters that are thought to contain cold-trapped volatiles including water ice.

The UAE is due to see its Rashid 1 rover, named for Dubai’s late ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, launched later this year by a Falcon 9 rocket. The 10-kilogram rover will be carried by the Hakuto-R lander developed by Japanese firm ispace.

The UAE is a signatory to the U.S.-led Artemis Accords which seeks to establish a shared set of principles for responsible behavior on the moon, but cooperation with other parties is not prohibited.

International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which restrict and control the export of technologies, could however pose different questions for the manufacture of the Rashid 2 rover. 

China opened its Chang’e-7 mission to prospective partners for a small rover when it announced a roadmap in June 2021 for an International Lunar Research Station in partnership with Russia.

China has already landed two lander-rover missions on the near and far sides of the moon with Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4 respectively. It also carried out a complex lunar sample return mission in 2020 with Chang’e-5.

The country’s next scheduled lunar mission is Chang’e-6 which will attempt to collect samples from the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the far side of the moon. 

The landing site is however expected to be at a similar latitude to that of Chang’e-5 rather than in the vicinity of the lunar south pole. Chang’e-3, 4 and 5 all set down at a latitude in the mid-40s, suggesting the spacecraft are designed for lighting conditions in these areas. 

Chang’e-7 spacecraft will require different solar array designs to operate in challenging lighting conditions at the lunar south pole.

Chang’e-6, 7 and 8 planned for launch this decade are part of a fourth phase of Chinese lunar exploration and are termed to be precursors to the ILRS.