December 16, 2013
Credit: China Space News
China will launch a sample return mission to the Moon in 2017, officials say, while declaring complete success for the current Chang’e 3 mission to land and deploy a lunar rover.
The next mission, Chang’e 4, will be similar to the current effort, using a backup spacecraft and rover, but will be adapted to prove technologies for the sample-return mission, Chang’e 5, says Wu Zhijian, a spokesman for the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.
Wu gave no schedule for Chang’e 4, but last year it was slated for 2015.
In 2017 Chang’e 5 will be China’s first space expedition to land on the Moon, collect samples and return them to Earth. Chang’e 6 is designed to do the same, following China’s habit of planning a pair of missions for each stage of its program to explore the Moon, in case of failure.
Stage two, to land and deploy a rover, has succeeded, says Ma Xingrui, chief commander of the lunar program and formerly the president of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., which builds most of the equipment for the lunar exploration program.
Chang’e 3 landed at 1:11 p.m. GMT on Dec. 14 and deployed its 140-kg (300-lb.) rover about seven hours later. On Dec. 15 the lander and rover began demonstrating their operational capability by photographing each other.
The rover, called Jade Rabbit, is intended to examine the Moon’s geological structure and surface material and look for natural resources for the next three months, although U.S. experience suggests that it could operate for much longer. The lander, unable to move, is to observe its surroundings for a year.
China’s lunar exploration program began in 2007 with the launch of Chang’e 1, a spacecraft built on a DFH-3 satellite bus, was launched into orbit around the Moon and finally crashed on to its surface. Chang’e 2, a very similar spacecraft built as a back-up, improved on its predecessor in 2010 by being launched directly into a lunar transfer orbit. Among the tasks of that mission was surveying possible landing sites for Chang’e 3. That completed stage 1, although Chang’e 2 is still operational, heading into deep space and now 60 million km (37 million mi.) from Earth.
No details are available on how Chang’e 4 will be adapted to lay groundwork for the third-phase sample-return missions, but Wu tells state news agency Xinhua: “The program’s third phase will be more difficult because many breakthroughs must be made in key technologies, such as Moon surface takeoff, sampling encapsulation, rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit, and high-speed Earth reentry, which are all new to China.”