China Showcases its Lunar Exploration Plans

The China National Space Agency (CNSA) has drawn a lot of attention to its space programs in recent years. In addition to their Tiangong space station and crewed missions to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), there’s also been a lot of buzz surrounding the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) and its Human Lunar Space Program. The high points have included the announcement of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) – a joint operation with Roscosmos – and shared concept art for their next-generation spacecraft and lunar lander.

As always, what we know about China’s plans for space exploration is limited to snippets of news, public statements, and the occasional video, which are the direct result of state-controlled media and tight secrecy regarding the country’s space program. The latest is a bootleg video that recently appeared online, which shows a video presentation that provides some insight into China’s long-term plans for crewed lunar exploration. The video is captioned with the words “China’s lunar space station and development of lunar molten cave base plan,” and it certainly lives up to that description!

First, a caveat: the video and text are entirely in Mandarin. All transcriptions were performed using translation software and may not be entirely accurate.

The video presents several familiar elements of lunar exploration, which have been hinted at in the past by the CMSA and the Manned Lunar Deep Exploration Project Office. These include a modular station in lunar orbit, robotic missions exploring the surface to scout resources and locate a base site, lunar landers, and facilities that will grow food, provide power, and facilitate crewed missions to explore the surface. In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) and using robots equipped with additive manufacturing (3D printers) are also indicated by the imagery alone.

Lunar Base in Orbit

The video, uploaded by YouTube user Chen Junlong, opens with a spacecraft rendezvousing with an orbiting lunar habitat, with the caption “Formation of the lunar space station.” Immediately, this tells us that China hopes to create an orbital platform that will rival NASA’s Lunar Gateway, which has been hinted at in the ILRS mission architecture. This includes the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) Guide for Partnership released in 2021, which describes the ILRS asa complex experimental research [facility] to be constructed with [the] possible [involvement] of partners on the surface and/or in orbit of the Moon.

An orbital element is further detailed in Section 1 (“Facilities Description”), where there is the mention of a Cislunar Transportation Facility in addition to a Long-term Support Facility on the Lunar Surface. According to the guide, the former will “support cislunar round-trip transfer between the Earth and the Moon, lunar orbiting, soft landing, ascending on [the] lunar surface and re-entry to the Earth.” Whereas the Gateway will be placed in a “halo orbit” around the Moon (orbiting from pole to pole), the Chinese facility is shown orbiting the lunar equator.

Lava Tube Habitat

In the video, this habitat is also a staging area for creating a subsurface habitat – the “lunar molten cave base.” For years, NASA has researched the possibility of building bases inside these tubes since they are accessible via “skylights” (holes in the surface) and are large enough to accommodate entire bases. They can also maintain comfortable room temperature conditions inside and provide natural shielding against radiation. China has also indicated that they are exploring the possibility of building a base inside lunar lava tubes.

At the 10th CSA-IAA Conference on Advanced Space Technology in September, representative Zhang Chongfeng from the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology presented a study that detailed fieldwork where his colleagues and planetary geologists explored several lava caves in China. According to Zhang, this research could lead to bases constructed in Mare Tranquillitatis (the Sea of Tranquility), where the Apollo 11 astronauts landed, and Mare Fecunditatis (the Sea of Fertility), both of which are located in the eastern half of the visible side of the Moon. However, rather than using a natural skylight, Chinese explorers created one in the video using a penetrator (“drilling device”) launched from the station.

Once the debris is cleared and the robots explore the cave below, we then see the core module of the lunar base deploying from the orbiting habitat. It then lands in the artificial skylight and deploys infrastructure into the cave, including inflatable cabin sections that appear to be a greenhouse and a research module. Meanwhile, the core deploys another inflatable module on the surface around the artificial skylight, which a robotic 3D printer proceeds to fashion a dome over. Both modules are equipped with double-layer airlocks, providing the crew access to the surface and subsurface.

This is followed by the creation of a solar array and other platforms that accommodate radio receivers, a vehicle bay (Lunar Transportation and Operation Facility in the ILRS guide), and a landing pad for lunar landers. The remaining footage details the allocation of space inside the habitat for different operations (research, sleeping, exercise) and how a central elevator connects the surface and subsurface sections. We also get a brief glimpse at what operations taikonauts will perform, which includes growing plants, conducting EVAs on the surface, and exploring lunar caves.

Lunar Landers

This brings up another key element of China’s lunar program, which is the lander that will transport crews to and from the surface. However, the lander featured here does not resemble the one China recently unveiled, which will be used to send the first taikonauts to the lunar surface by 2030. But from the footage, this lander is clearly not reusable either, consisting of a descent and ascent module – similar to the lunar landers used by the Apollo astronauts.

The video also hints (very briefly) at the end that these lunar facilities will enable future missions to Mars. This is certainly suggested by the closing caption, “Extraterrestrial exploration. We are still on the way.” Rather than stating that this represents the future of Chinese lunar exploration, these closing words indicate that this may be the first step in exploration beyond Earth. This is reminiscent of what NASA has stated about the Artemis Program and the “Moon to Mars” mission architecture that preceded it.

In previous statements, China has indicated that it intends to send crewed missions to Mars starting in 2033, the same timeline proposed by NASA. Under the circumstances, it makes sense that they would be adopting a similar Moon-to-Mars architecture with the ILRS. This constitutes the most detailed vision of China’s proposed lunar program to date. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the coming years!

Author’s note: The origin and authenticity of the video are unclear, which is exacerbated by the fact that it is a recording of a video presentation (i.e. a bootleg). Nevertheless, the content certainly looks authentic and aligns with a lot of previous statements by the CNSA. Take it with a grain of salt!