China is Going Back to the Moon Again With Chang'e-6

On Friday, May 3rd, the sixth mission in the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e-6) launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in southern China. Shortly after, China announced that the spacecraft separated successfully from its Long March 5 Y8 rocket. The mission, consisting of an orbiter and lander element, is now on its way to the Moon and will arrive there in a few weeks. By June, the lander element will touch down on the far side of the Moon, where it will gather about 2 kg (4.4 lbs) of rock and soil samples for return to Earth.

The mission launched four years after its predecessor, Chang’e-5, became China’s first sample-return mission to reach the Moon. It was also the first lunar sample return mission since the Soviet Luna 24 mission landed in Mare Crisium (the Sea of Crisis) in 1976. Compared to its predecessor, the Chang’e-6 mission weighs an additional 100 kg (220 lbs), making it the heaviest probe launched by the Chinese space program. The surface elements also face lesser-known terrain on the far side of the Moon and require a relay satellite for communications.

Speaking of surface elements, the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) has since released images showing how the mission also carries a rover element. This payload was not part of mission data disclosed by China before the flight. But as SpaceNews’ Andrew Jones pointed out, the rover can be seen in the CAST images (see above) integrated onto the side of the lander.

“Little is known about the rover, but a mention of a Chang’e-6 rover is made in a post from the Shanghai Institute of Ceramics (SIC) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS),” he wrote. “It suggests the small vehicle carries an infrared imaging spectrometer.” This rover is no doubt intended to assist the lander with investigating resources on the far side of the Moon. This is consistent with China’s long-term plans for building the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) around the southern polar region in collaboration with Roscosmos and other international patterns.

Similar to NASA’s plans for the Lunar Gateway and Artemis Base Camp, this requires that building sites be selected near sources of water ice and building materials (silica and other minerals). Ge Ping, the deputy director of the Center of Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering (CLESE) with the China National Space Administration (CNSA), related the importance of the sample-return mission to CGTN (a state-owned media company) before the launch:

“The Aitken Basin is one of the three major terrains on the Moon and has significant scientific value. Finding and collecting samples from different regions and ages of the Moon is crucial for our understanding of it. These would further study of the moon’s origin and its evolutionary history.”

In addition, the Chang’e-6 orbiter carries four international payloads and satellites including a French radon detector contributed by the ESA. Known as the Detection of Outgassing Radon (DORN), this payload will study how lunar dust and other volatiles (especially water) are transferred between the lunar regolith and the lunar exosphere. Then there’s the Italian INstrument for landing-Roving laser Retroreflector Investigations (INRRI), similar to those used by the Schiaparelli EDM module and InSight lander, that precisely measures distances from the lander to orbit.

The Chang’e-6 spacecraft stack shows a lunar rover attached to the mission lander. Credit: CAST

There’s also the Swedish Negative Ions on Lunar Surface (NILS), an instrument that will detect and measure negative ions reflected by the lunar surface. Lastly, there’s the Pakistani ICUBE-Q CubeSat developed by the Institute of Space Technology (IST) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), which will take images of the lunar surface using two optical cameras and measure the Moon’s magnetic field. The data these instruments provide will reveal new information about the lunar environment that will inform plans for long-duration missions on the surface.

By 2026, the Chang’e-6 mission will be joined by Chang’e-7, including an orbiter, lander, rover, and a mini-hopping probe. The data provided by the program will assist China’s plans to land taikonauts around the lunar south pole by 2030, followed by the completion of the ILRS by 2035.

Further Reading: CGTN