Caves were some of humanity’s first shelters. Who knows what our distant ancestors were thinking as they sought refuge there, huddling and cooking meat over a fire, maybe drawing animals on the walls. Caves protected our ancient ancestors from the elements, and from predators and rivals, back when sticks, stones, furs and fire were our only technologies.
So there’s a poetic parallel between early humans and us. We’re visiting the Moon again, and lunar caves could shelter us the way caves sheltered our ancestors on Earth.
Last May, as part of the nation’s growing presence in space, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) announced that it had established a Human Lunar Space Program that would send crewed missions to the Moon and culminate in the creation of a lunar base. This came shortly after China and Russia announced that they would be collaborating on future lunar missions, which included the creation of a base around the southern polar region. In June 2022, they announced that this base would be named the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) and released a guide explaining how international partners could join.
On Thursday, August 31st, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) released artists’ renderings of their next-generation spacecraft and lunar lander. The spacecraft will consist of two sections, a reentry capsule, and a service section, while the lunar lander will include a landing section and a propulsion section. According to a statement released by the Agency, these vehicles will deliver crews to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and allow China to send crewed missions to the lunar surface. The release of these images confirms what has been suspected for some time: that China fully intends to land taikonauts on the Moon before 2030.
Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese National Space Administration recently published a study in the journal Space: Science & Technology outlining how the upcoming Chang’e-7 mission, due to launch in 2026, will use a combination of orbital observations and in-situ analyses to help identify the location, amount, and dispersion of water-ice in the permanently-shadowed regions (PSRs) of the Moon, specifically at the lunar south pole.
As of 2019, China began conducting preliminary studies for a crewed lunar mission that would take place by the 2030s. Two years later, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) and Roscosmos announced a partnership to create an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) around the South Pole-Aitken Basin. The proposed timeline for development came down to three phases: Reconnaissance (2021-25), Construction (2025-35), and Utilization (2035-onward). Earlier this year, China announced that its space agency would send the first crewed mission to the lunar surface by 2030.
On July 12th, during the 9th China (International) Commercial Aerospace Forum in Wuhan, China, Chinese officials offered additional information about its crewed lunar exploration program. This included Deputy chief engineer Zhang Hailian of the China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) office announcing the preliminary plan for China’s first crewed lunar mission. As Zhang illustrated with a series of animations, the mission will consist of two carrier rockets launching all the necessary elements to the Moon, which will then rendezvous in orbit and land on the surface to conduct science operations.
The Zhurong rover has operated on the surface of Mars for over a year since it deployed on May 22nd, 2021. Before the rover suspended operations on May 20th, 2022, due to the onset of winter and the approach of seasonal sandstorms, Zhurong managed to traverse a total distance of 1.921 km (1.194 mi). During the first kilometer of this trek, the rover obtained vital data on Mars’ extremely weak magnetic fields. According to a new study by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), these readings indicate that the magnetic field is extremely weak beneath the rover’s landing site.
China’s space program has advanced by leaps and bounds in a relatively short time. However, it has suffered some bad publicity in recent years due to certain “uncontrolled reentries” (aka. crashes). On multiple occasions, spent first stages have fallen back to Earth, posing a potential threat to populated areas and prompting backlash from NASA and the ESA, who claimed China was taking “unnecessary risks.” To curb the risk caused by spent first stages, China has developed a parachute system that can guide fallen rocket boosters to predetermined landing zones.
According to the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), which developed the system, the system was successfully tested on a Long March-3B (CZ-3B) rocket on Friday, June 9th. As they indicated in their statement, a review of the test data and an in-situ analysis of the debris showed that the parachute system helped narrow the range of the landing area by 80%. This could help pave the way for future parachute landing control technology applications, which could allow for controlled reentry, retrieval, and even reusability.
China continues to establish new milestones in space. In recent years, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) has begun assembling the Long March-9 (CZ-9), the country’s first reusable super-heavy launch vehicle; the Tianwen-1 mission became the first Chinese orbiter, lander, and rover combination to reach Mars, and their super-secret spaceplane completed its second flight (after spending 276 days in space). China has also made significant progress in terms of human spaceflight, especially where the Tiangong space station is concerned.
Earlier this week (Tues. May 30th), the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) took another major step when it launched the country’s sixteenth mission (Shenzou-16) to Tiangong atop a Long March-2F (CZ-2F) rocket. This mission delivered three taikonauts to the space station and performed the most complicated docking maneuver ever attempted. The mission highlights included successfully testing the Shenzou’s upgraded instruments and systems, which allowed the spacecraft to autonomously rendezvous with the station under less-than-ideal conditions.
As NASA prepares to return astronauts to the Moon with Artemis III, China is ramping up its efforts for a crewed lunar landing, targeting earlier than 2030. Lin Xiqiang, the deputy director of China’s Manned Space Agency announced that the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) is preparing for a “short stay on the lunar surface and human-robotic joint exploration.”
Through the Artemis Program, NASA plans to send the first astronauts to the Moon in over fifty years. Before the decade is over, this program aims to establish the infrastructure that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” The European Space Agency (ESA) also has big plans, which include the creation of a Moon Village that will serve as a spiritual successor to the International Space Station (ISS). China and Roscosmos also came together in June 2021 to announce that they would build the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) around the lunar south pole.
In all cases, space agencies plan to harvest local resources to meet their construction and long-term needs – a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Based on samples returned by the fifth mission of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e-5), a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) identified indigenous glass fibers for the first time. According to a paper they authored, these fibers were formed by past impacts in the region and could be an ideal building material for future lunar bases.
A lot has changed since the last Space Age. Unlike the days of Sputnik, Vostok, Mercury, and Apollo, the current era is not defined by two superpowers constantly vying for dominance and one-upmanship. More than ever, international cooperation is the name of the game, with space agencies coming together to advance common exploration and science goals. Similarly, there is the way the private space sector has become a major participant, providing everything from launch services and commercial payloads to satellite constellations and crews.
But in some ways, old habits die hard. Since the turn of the century, China has emerged as a major power in space, to the point of becoming a direct competitor with NASA’s human space programs. For the past few years, China has been developing a reusable autonomous spaceplane to compete with the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). Known as Shenlong (“divine dragon”), this spaceplane recently concluded its second test flight after spending 276 days in orbit. Though the details are scant, the Chinese state media company Xinua declared the flight a breakthrough for the Chinese space program.