Astronomy

China has a new Human Lunar Space Program, With Plans for Landers, Orbiters, Rovers, and a Lunar Base

The China National Space Agency (CNSA) has advanced considerably since the turn of the century, boasting new launch vehicles, robotic missions to the Moon and Mars, and a modular space station in orbit (Tiangong). According to various sources, they plan to advance even further in the coming years and decades. Given the tight-lipped nature of the Chinese government and its agencies, much of what we periodically hear is based on snippets of information, gossip, and speculation.

However, in a recent interview with the state-owned CCTV new network, chief designer Huang Zhen confirmed that China’s space agency has established the Crewed Lunar Program Office. This program will consist of additional robotic missions to explore the Moon, followed by crewed missions and the creation of a base camp. Zhen also confirmed that he and his team at the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) are currently developing the key technologies that will make this happen.

The news was shared via Twitter by China Spaceflight (CNSpaceflight), an online news source that provides updates on the CNSA and its related programs. They also shared a series of images from the CCTV interview that showed the interior of the Program Office. These included a sign that reads (in Chinese script) “Manned Lunar Deep Exploration Project Office” (see below). Another shows the mural painted on the wall of the MLDEP’s office (father down) featuring numerous vehicles and design concepts against a backdrop of space.

These appear to be designs for future vehicles and habitats, as they do not conform to known Chinese designs. However, the purpose of each seems clear. From left to right, we see what resembles a small space station with two lateral-facing inflatable modules at one end and a cupola at the front. This could be an orbital element for the ILRS (purely speculation), a habitat meant to rival the Lunar Gateway. Next to it is a crewed spacecraft, which resembles Russia’s partially-reusable concept known as the Prospective Piloted Transport System (PPTS) – aka. the Orel spacecraft.

Next to that is what appears to be a lunar rover with a fan-like deployable solar array, which is dissimilar to the rovers deployed by the Chang’e and Tianwen programs. On the right end is a concept for a lander with two taikonauts standing in front with its circular solar panels deployed. In the background, there’s what looks like a surface habitat made up of several distinct facilities, including an observation tower (between the rover and the lander).

According to a statement by Zhen (quoted in one of the tweets), his team is testing the wall thickness for the lunar module (and that they’ve reached ~1mm so far). Another shows a snapshot of the simulation software for the lunar module, which (according to China Spaceflight) indicates that the main engine will be a throttleable system capable of generating 80 kilonewtons (kN). This works out to about 17,985 pound-thrust (lbf), almost twice that of the AJ10 engine on the Command and Service Modules (CSM) used to transport the Apollo astronauts to the Moon and back.

This program builds on the China Manned Space Program (CMS), approved on September 21st, 1992, which has been in operation ever since. This long-term program consists of three steps: the launch and return of crewed spacecraft, the creation of a “space laboratory” that would allow for extravehicular activities (EVAs), rendezvous’ in orbit, and spacecraft docking procedures; and a long-term space station. Once the Tiangong station is complete, all three steps will have been realized.

Credit: CCTV via China Spaceflight

Based on recent statements, China hopes to extend the CMS to include the crewed exploration of Earth’s nearest celestial body (the Moon) and locations in deep space (Mars). These include last year’s announcement that China and Russia will be collaborating on the creation of an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). Days later, China also announced that it would be sending taikonauts to Mars beginning in 2033, culminating in the creation of a permanent base.

These statements were all that NASA and other potential competitors had to go on until now. This may be the first time a source associated with China’s space agency has addressed these plans and offered details about them. In any case, this latest news confirms what many already strongly suspected: China intends to compete directly with NASA’s Artemis Program. As for their efforts to explore Mars in the same time period as NASA, that remains to be seen.

One thing is for certain: the next few decades will be a very exciting time for China and its many colleagues and competitors!

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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