Here’s Where China’s Sample Return Mission is Headed

Chang'e-6 will land in the Apollo Basin inside the much larger SPA basin. Image Credit: Zeng et al. 2023.

Humanity got its first look at the other side of the Moon in 1959 when the USSR’s Luna 3 probe captured our first images of the Lunar far side. The pictures were shocking, pointing out a pronounced difference between the Moon’s different sides. Now China is sending another lander to the far side.

This time, it’ll bring back a sample from this long-unseen domain that could explain the puzzling difference.

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China's Relay Satellite is in Lunar Orbit

Animation of Queqiao-2 satellite establishing orbit around the Moon. Credit: CGTN

On March 20th, China’s Queqiao-2 (“Magpie Bridge-2”) satellite launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Site LC-2 on the island of Hainan (in southern China) atop a Long March-8 Y3 carrier rocket. This mission is the second in a series of communications relay and radio astronomy satellites designed to support the fourth phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e). On March 24th, after 119 hours in transit, the satellite reached the Moon and began a perilune braking maneuver at a distance of 440 km (~270 mi) from the lunar surface.

The maneuver lasted 19 minutes, after which the satellite entered lunar orbit, where it will soon relay communications from missions on the far side of the Moon around the South Pole region. This includes the Chang’e-4 lander and rover and will extend to the Chang’e-6 sample-return mission, which is scheduled to launch in May. It will also assist Chang’e-7 and -8 (scheduled for 2026 and 2028, respectively), consisting of an orbiter, rover, and lander mission, and a platform that will test technologies necessary for the construction of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

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China’s Next Lunar Relay Satellite Blasts Off

Launch of Queqiao-2

Communication between spacecraft relies upon line of site technology, if anything is in the way, communication isn’t possible. Exploration of the far side of the Moon is a great example where future explorers would be unable to communicate directly with Earth.  The only way around this is to use relay satellites and the Chinese Space Agency is on the case. The first Queqiao-1 was able to co-ordinate communications with Chang’e-4 landers and now they are sending Queqiao-2 to support the Change’e-6 mission. 

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China Has Built a Huge Space Simulation Chamber

China's first "ground space station," the home-grown Space Environment Simulation and Research Infrastructure, passed its acceptance review on Tuesday in Harbin, the capital of Northeast China's Heilongjiang province. [File photo/Xinhua]

Well it certainly caught my attention when I saw the headlines  “China’s first Space Environment Simulator” sounds like something right out of an adventure holiday. Whilst you can’t buy tickets to ‘have a go’ it’s actually for China to test spacecraft before launching them into the harsh environments of space. It allows researchers to simulate nine environmental factors; vacuum, high and low temperature, charged particles, electromagnetic radiation, space dust, plasma, weak magnetic field, neutral gasses and microgravity – and it even looks futuristic too!

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Questions Remain on Chinese Rocket That Created an Unusual Double Crater on the Moon

A rocket body impacted the Moon on March 4, 2022, near Hertzsprung crater, creating a double crater roughly 28 meters wide in the longest dimension. Credits: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

In November, we reported how an impact on the Moon from a Chinese Long March rocket booster created an unusual double crater. For a single booster to create a double crater, some researchers thought there must have been an additional – perhaps secret – payload on the forward end of the booster, opposite from the rocket engines. But that may not necessarily be the case.

Other researchers feel the extra mass wasn’t anything secretive, but possibly an inert structure such as a payload adapter added to the rocket to support the primary mission payload.

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There are Mysterious Polygons Beneath the Surface of Mars

China's Zhurong rover on Mars
An image from China's Zhurong rover shows spacecraft hardware in the foreground and Martian terrain in the background. (Credit: CNSA)

China’s Zhurong rover was equipped with a ground-penetrating radar system, allowing it to peer beneath Mars’s surface. Researchers have announced new results from the scans of Zhurong’s landing site in Utopia Planitia, saying they identified irregular polygonal wedges located at a depth of about 35 meters all along the robot’s journey. The objects measure from centimeters to tens of meters across. The scientists believe the buried polygons resulted from freeze-thaw cycles on Mars billions of years ago, but they could also be volcanic, from cooling lava flows.

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China’s Space Station, Seen from Orbit

Crew on the Shenzhou 16 mission returning from the Tiangong space station captured this image on their return trip back to Earth. Image Credit: China Manned Space Agency.

When the Space Age dawned in 1957, there were only two players: the USA and the USSR. The USA won the space race by being first to the Moon, though the USSR enjoyed its own successes. But here we are only a few decades later, and the USSR appears to be fading away while China is surging ahead.

Nothing’s more emblematic of China’s surge than its Tiangong space station.

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A Chinese Booster (and Additional Secret Payload) Caused a Double Crater on the Moon

A rocket body impacted the Moon on March 4, 2022, near Hertzsprung crater, creating a double crater roughly 28 meters wide in the longest dimension. Credits: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Last year, astronomers warned that a large piece of debris was on a collision course with the Moon. Initially, they speculated that it was a SpaceX booster but later zeroed in on a Chinese Long March 3C rocket booster that launched the Chang’e 5 mission. When it did impact on March 4, 2022, astronomers noted a strange double crater.

A new paper suggests that it couldn’t have been a single object breaking up since there’s no atmosphere on the Moon. Instead, the booster must have been carrying an additional, undisclosed payload.

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A Robotic Chemist Could Whip up the Perfect Batch of Oxygen on Mars

Astronauts on Mars will need oxygen. There's oxygen in the atmosphere, but only small amounts. But there's lots of subterranean water on Mars, and that means there's lots of oxygen, too. (Credit: NASA)

Humans on Mars will need oxygen, and Mars’ atmosphere is pretty anemic when it comes to the life-sustaining element. NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully extracted oxygen from CO2 in Mars’ atmosphere, but there are other ways to acquire it. There seem to be vast amounts of water buried under the Martian surface, and oxygen in the water is just waiting to be set free from its bonds with hydrogen.

On Earth, that’s no problem. Just run an electrical current through water, and you get oxygen. But Mars won’t give up its oxygen so easily.

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Plants Could Grow in Lunar Regolith Using Bacteria

Plants grown in a volcanic ash lunar simulant (left) compared with those grown in the lunar soil (right) Credit: UF/IFAS/Tyler Jones

In the next decade, NASA, China, and their international and commercial partners plan to establish habitats on the Moon. Through the Artemis Program, NASA will deploy the orbiting Lunar Gateway and the Artemis Base Camp on the lunar surface. Meanwhile, China (and its partner Roscosmos) will deploy the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), consisting of an orbital and surface element. The creation of this infrastructure will enable a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development” that could lead to a permanent human presence there.

To ensure that humans can work and live sustainably beyond Earth, astronauts and crews will need to be able to harvest local resources to see to their needs – in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). This includes using lunar water ice and regolith to grow plants, providing astronauts with food and an additional source of oxygen and biomass. To test the potential for growing plants on the Moon, a Chinese research team conducted a series of experiments where they grew tobacco plants in simulated lunar soil with the help of bacteria.

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