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May 27, 2024

China’s Chang’e-6 lunar probe cleared for historic launch this spring

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Jan 11, 2024

China is poised to make history this year with the launch of its Chang’e-6 lunar probe, an ambitious mission to collect and return samples from the far side of the moon. If successful, it would be the first time any country has retrieved lunar samples since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.

Launch scheduled for late April

After years of development, China’s lunar exploration program is entering an exciting new phase. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has confirmed that final preparations for Chang’e-6 are underway, with the launch window opening in late April 2023 from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island [1].

The announcement comes just days after the probe was transported to the launch site, suggesting the hardware and systems checks are progressing smoothly [2].

Ambitious objectives for surface and subsurface sampling

Chang’e-6 has several key scientific objectives [3]:

  • Land on the far side of the moon in the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin
  • Collect and return at least 2 kg of lunar samples from below the surface
  • Analyze surface composition and subsurface structure
  • Test key technologies for future crewed lunar missions

The complex mission involves an orbiter, lander, ascender, and return capsule. The lander will drill into the lunar crust and scoop samples from depths up to 2 meters, providing the first ever subsurface samples from another planetary body [4]. These could yield important data on the history and composition of the moon’s far side mantle.

Far side objectives key to human outpost plans

China views Chang’e-6 as a vital step toward its long-term goal of establishing a permanent human outpost on the lunar far side. Mission chief designer Hu Hao said studying the origin and evolution of the SPA basin could help identify an optimal location for a future lunar base [5].

The moon’s far side has key advantages such as near-constant solar illumination for power generation, as well as natural shielding from Earth’s radio interference. But landing and operating there requires innovative communication and navigation technologies since direct line-of-sight is blocked by the lunar body.

To enable continuous communication with Earth, China launched a dedicated relay satellite called Queqiao in 2018. Chang’e-6 will demonstrate precise landing techniques and surface exploration operations while keeping the lander and rover connected via Queqiao.

Implications of sample return capability

A successful Chang’e-6 mission would make China only the third nation after the U.S. and Russia capable of returning extraterrestrial samples.

Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China’s space program at the U.S. Naval War College, said this reinforces China’s status as a “first-tier space power” [6]. More importantly, it could aid scientific discovery through analysis of lunar materials using the latest lab equipment on Earth.

This has benefits well beyond national prestige. The Apollo program’s moon rock samples continue supplying new breakthroughs about the solar system’s history and formation over 4 billion years ago. As Dr. Freese noted, “What we discover on the moon and about the moon is going to tell us more about Earth.”

Diagram showing Chang’e lunar exploration timeline

Phase Mission Launch Year Key Accomplishments
Orbital Chang’e-1 2007 Lunar surface imaging and mapping
Chang’e-2 2010 Detailed surface analysis; corrected solar flare data
Landing & roving Chang’e-3 2013 First soft landing on moon since 1976; Yutu rover
Sample return Chang’e-5 2020 Collected ~1.7 kg samples from Oceanus Procellarum
Chang’e-6 2023 Subsurface sampling; far side landing demo
Sustained presence Chang’e-7 + 8 2024+ In-situ resource utilzation tests; prototype lunar base

Race to return to the moon

China’s steady progress stands in contrast to recent setbacks for the NASA-led Artemis program, the multinational effort to return humans to the lunar surface by 2025. Artemis suffered a major blow last month when a fuel leak forced the cancellation of a crucial uncrewed test flight around the moon.

Expedition chief William Gerstenmaier conceded this has likely pushed back the timeline for sending astronauts around the moon or landing them on it. Meanwhile, Russia is recovering from delays related to sanctions imposed over the Ukraine invasion last February. With Chang’e-6 now just weeks from launch, China may soon eclipse both rivals in lunar exploration capabilities [7].

Next phase will lay groundwork for lunar base

Looking ahead, China aims to launch Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8 in 2024 as precursors to human lunar missions and a permanent base [8].

Chang’e-7 will study lunar radiation, solar wind implantation in regolith, and in-situ resource utilization – key data for astronaut health and survival.

Chang’e-8 plans to demonstrate life support capabilities, 3D printing structures using lunar soil, and testing pre-fabricated habitat components [9] – directly supporting establishment of a robotic outpost from late this decade.

With the launch of Chang’e-6 fast approaching, China’s vision of permanent human operations on the moon is coming sharply into focus. Their steady cadence of orbital, landing and sample return missions shows a methodical approach that may soon pay off with breakthrough discoveries – and if successful, position China as the dominant lunar power by 2030.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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