China ready to launch lunar far side sample return mission

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun4,2024

HELSINKI — China rolled out the rocket to launch its Chang’e-6 mission early Saturday, with the aim of collecting the first lunar far side samples.

The eighth Long March 5 rocket was vertically transferred to the pad at Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan island April 27. 

The Chang’e-6 mission aims to land on the far side of the moon—a region never directly visible from Earth—collect up to 2,000 grams of lunar material, and return it to Earth. Such a mission has never before been attempted.

A relay satellite, named Queqiao-2, was launched in March. It is now in a specialized lunar orbit to facilitate communications between the Chang’e-6 on the lunar far side and ground stations on Earth.

Chinese authorities have yet to disclose a launch time for Chang’e-6. However, navigation warnings indicate launch is expected early Friday, May 3. 

A map of the lunar far side, indicating the Chang’e-6 landing zone within Apollo crater. Credit: CNSA

Chang’e-6 is targeting the southern portion of Apollo crater, located at 150–158 degrees west, 41–45 degrees south on the lunar far side. Apollo lies within the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin, a gigantic, ancient impact basin, which is thought to hold tantalizing clues as to a number of moon mysteries.

The mission builds—technically, engineering-wise and scientifically—upon China’s Chang’e-4 lander and rover mission to the lunar far side, supported by the first Queqiao satellite, and the 2020 Chang’e-5 nearside sample return.

“Chang’e-6 aims to achieve breakthroughs in the design and control technology of the Moon’s retrograde orbit, intelligent sampling, take-off and ascent technologies, and automatic sample-return on the far side of the moon,” Ge Ping, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center (LESEC), under the China National Space Administration (CNSA), told CCTV, April 27.

“At present, the Long March 5 rocket and Chang’e-6 probe are in good condition. All preparations for the launch are progressing in an orderly manner, following normal working procedures.” 

The Long March 5 is a 5-meter-diameter, 57-meter-tall rocket powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. It also uses four kerosene-liquid oxygen side boosters. The rocket is China’s largest, most powerful operational launch vehicle. It has launched major missions including Chang’e-5 and the Tianwen-1 Mars mission. Unlike its Long March 5B variant, the core stage will not reach orbital velocity and not make an uncontrolled reentry.

Chang’e-6 spacecraft

The Chang’e-6 mission will use a stack of four spacecraft totaling around 8,200 kilograms to achieve its goals. 

A service module will deliver the propulsion needed to enter lunar orbit. The lander will set down on the far side of the moon and collect samples. These will be launched into lunar orbit by an ascent vehicle, which will rendezvous and dock with the service module. The service module will then head back towards Earth. It will then release a reentry capsule tasked with delivering the samples safely through a high-speed reentry through Earth’s atmosphere.

Chang’e-6 has the added complexity of requiring a communications relay. It is also expected to last 53 days from launch till landing, according to China’s Deep Space Exploration Laboratory (DSEL). Chang’e-5 was a 23-day mission.

If successful, the samples collected from insights into the moon’s history and the solar system. They could also help explain why there is a difference in composition of nearside versus far side lunar rock.

The mission will also include international scientific payloads from France, Sweden, Italy, and a Pakistani cubesat. The collaborations reflect Chinese efforts to boost its international cooperation in space exploration. 

France is providing the Detection of Outgassing RadoN (DORN) instrument which will detect radon outgassing from the lunar crust. Sweden, with ESA support, will contribute the “Negative Ions at the Lunar Surface” (NILS) payload. An Italian passive laser retro-reflector will also be aboard. The 7-kg ICUBE-Q cubesat is a collaboration between Pakistan’s national space agency, SUPARCO, and China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Chang’e-6 is part of China’s broader goals, which include a crewed lunar mission by 2030. China aims to establish a permanent lunar base through the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) program in the 2030s. A number of countries and organizations have signed up to the project.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “China ready to launch lunar far side sample return mission”
  1. What are the main challenges China may face when attempting to collect and return lunar samples from the far side of the moon for the first time?

  2. It’s incredible to see China pushing the boundaries of lunar exploration with the Chang’e-6 mission. The quest to collect samples from the far side of the moon is a thrilling endeavor that could unearth valuable knowledge about our celestial neighbor. Kudos to the Chinese space program for their ambitious efforts!

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