Two robotic Chinese spacecraft have docked in lunar orbit for the first time ever, in preparation for sending samples from the Moon to Earth.
The lunar ascent module for China’s Chang’e-5 mission was captured by the metal claws of the mission’s orbiter at 5:42 a.m. Beijing time December 6th (2142 UTC December 5th), the China National Space Administration reported.
Over the half-hour that followed, a canister containing lunar material was safely transferred to the orbiter’s attached Earth-return capsule. In the days ahead, the ascent module will be jettisoned, and the orbiter will fire its thrusters to carry the return capsule back toward Earth.
If all proceeds according to plan, the orbiter will drop off the return capsule for its descent to Inner Mongolia sometime around December 16th, with the exact timing dependent on the mission team’s analysis of the required trajectory. That would mark the first return of fresh material from the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 spacecraft accomplished the feat back in 1976.
For the first time in more than 40 years, a robotic spacecraft has blasted off from the Moon – and for the first time ever, it’s a Chinese spacecraft, carrying precious lunar samples back to Earth.
The ascent vehicle for the Chang’e-5 mission fired its engine and rose a region called Oceanus Procellarum at 1510 UTC (11:10 p.m. Beijing time) on December 3rd, the China National Space Administration’s China Lunar Exploration Project reported.
Imagery sent back from the Moon provided a view of the blastoff from ground zero. It was the first successful lunar launch since the Soviet Luna 24 probe took off during a sample return mission in 1976.
China’s Chang’e-5 robotic moon lander is due to spend only two days collecting samples of lunar rock and soil before it sends its shipment on its way back to Earth, but it’s making the most of the time.
Just hours after landing on December 1st, the probe started using its robotic scoop and drill to dig up material at Mons Rümker, a lava dome in a region called Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms.
It’s also been sending back pictures and video, including this stunning view of the final minutes before touchdown. Watch how the camera tips straight down to focus on the target spot for the lander:
For the third time in seven years, a Chinese robotic spacecraft has landed on the Moon — but now things will get really interesting: If the Chang’e-5 mission succeeds, the probe will deliver fresh samples from the Moon to Earth for the first time in 44 years.
Chang’e-5’s paired lander and ascent vehicle touched down in a lunar region known as Oceanus Procellarium, near Mons Rümker, at 1513 UTC (11:13 p.m. Beijing time) December 1st. The landing came eight days after the 9-ton spacecraft was launched from Wenchang Space Launch Center, and three days after the craft settled into lunar orbit.
China’s next-generation crewed spacecraft, which will replace the venerable Shenzou spacecraft in the coming years, recently returned to Earth after spending almost three days in space. The purpose of this mission was to test the deep space capabilities of the spacecraft that will be sending Chinese astronauts (taikonauts) to orbit, to the Moon, and beyond in the coming years.
In addition, this mission also saw China’s new Long March 5B (CZ-5B) heavy-lift rocket launch a payload to space for the first time. This rocket is the latest installment in the Long March family and will be vital to the creation of the third and largest Chinese space station. These two milestones have brought China a step closer to becoming a full-fledged superpower in space.
On Friday, July 19th, China’s Tiangong-2 (“Heavenly Palace”) space laboratory successfully entered Earth’s atmosphere under controlled conditions and burned up above the South Pacific Ocean. This marked the successful completion of all of Tiangong-2’s tasks, which constituted China’s second attempt at testing their capability to conduct research and human operations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
In recent decades, China’s space program has advanced considerably. In addition to deploying their first space station (Tiangong-1) and developing a modern rockets (the Long March 5), the nation has also sent robotic mission to the lunar surface and plans to conduct crewed missions there in the coming years. To this end, China is looking to create a new series of rockets that will enable them to explore the Moon and maybe even Mars.
One of the rockets they use to accomplish these goals is known as the Long-March 8, which is expected to make its maiden flight around 2021. According to a statement made by the chief rocket designer (Long Lehao) during a recent space conference in Harbin, China, the rocket will also include a reusable first stage. This latest announcement shows that China is also pursuing reusable launch vehicles to lower costs and increase their presence in space.
According to the China Space Report, the Long March 8 (Changzheng 8, or CZ-8) is a medium-lift vehicle intended for Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) missions – i.e. where payloads are delivered to a nearly polar orbit around a planet. Consisting of two stages and two boosters, this rocket will reportedly have a payload capacity of 3000 to 4,500 kg (6600 to 9900 lbs) to SSO.
The first stages on this rocket are believed to be based on the first-stage of the Long March 7, which are powered by two single-chamber YF-100, 1,200 kN-thrust engines fueled by LOX/kerosene. Based on Long’s statement, the first stages and boosters are expected to be retrieved through vertical landing (similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets).
However, according to Bao Weimin, the director of the Science and Technology Commission of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the Long March 8 will use different technologies that those employed by SpaceX. The purpose of this rocket will be to provide commercial launch services to customers from around the world.
As Long indicated during the course of the conference (according to China Daily):
“China’s aerospace industry is making efforts to develop low-cost vehicles that can enter space rapidly to support future large-scale space exploration and promote a commercial space industry.”
In addition, Long also emphasized that China will be making efforts to address an ongoing problem with its younger Long March rockets, which is controlling where they fall. Currently, landing areas have to be are evacuated at every launch since these rockets rely on toxic chemicals. And with launches becoming more frequent, controlling where these rockets fall is becoming a major priority.
“As the current Long March 2, 3, 4 series rockets are fueled by toxic propellants, they cannot be recycled,” said Long. “But we are developing technologies to precisely control the fall of the rocket remains to ensure safety.”
Lastly, Long indicated what lies ahead for China’s space program and commercial spaceflight. By 2025, he claimed, reusable carriers will be developed for conducting suborbital space flights. By 2030, China National Space Agency will be conducting launches with rockets that rely on two reusable stages and will have achieved complete reusability by 2035. He also hinted how by 2040, China will be using reusable carrier rockets that will rely on hybrid-power sources.
All of this will allow for cheaper and more efficient launch services, facilitate spaceflight for private citizens, and allow for the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO). These goals are in keeping with what space agencies like NASA and private aerospace companies like SpaceX have in mind for the coming decades. In this sense, China is indicating that it intends to parallel other major powers in space by following a similar path.
Amazing images of falling rocket debris from a spent Chinese booster were captured in the final moments of its plummet back to Earth outside a remote village located in southwest China.
The images were taken by a photo journalist during the final seconds of the descent of the first stage of the Long March 3A rocket carrier as it was crashing to the ground by the village of Gaopingsi in southwest China’s Guizhou province on December 31, 2014.
Local villagers soon gathered around the rocket crash debris.
The rocket incident and images were featured online by the state-run China New Service (CNS) website. Checkout the photo gallery herein.
“A journalist captured the moment the debris was falling across the sky,” according to CNS.
No injuries or damage to the local village was reported.
“The landing did not influence the local villagers or bring any damages.”
The Long March 3A rocket debris stems from the successful launch of a Chinese meteorological satellite, some minutes earlier at 9:02 am local time on Wednesday, December 31, 2014.
The photographer and local villagers made their way to the crash site and captured spectacular up close photos of the first stage rocket, engine and related debris that had fallen in a heavily forested area.
Chinese security officials eventually arrived, evacuated the villagers and cordoned off the area.
The rocket and Fengyun-II 08 satellite lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan province.
Fengyun-II 08 successfully achieved orbit. It will collect meteorological, maritime and hydrological data and transmit information that will be used for weather forecasting and environmental monitoring according to a CCTV report.
Since the Long March rockets blast off from China’s interior in Sichuan province, they flies over long swathes of land area and near some populated areas and occasional fall nearby and can occasionally cause damage.
The situation is similar with Russian rockets launching from Baikonur in Kazahzstan.
By contrast, US and European rockets take off from coastal areas towards oceans. They avoid most populated areas, but not all. The flight termination system is required to protect nearby coastal towns in case of wayward rockets like the Oct. 28 failure of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket which exploded seconds after blastoff.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
A Chinese robotic probe has just successfully completed the first round trip to the Moon and back home in four decades that paves the path for China’s next great space leap forward – an ambitious mission to return samples from the lunar surface later this decade.
On Saturday, Nov. 1, the unmanned Chang’e-5 T1 test capsule nicknamed “Xiaofei” concluded an eight-day test flight around the Moon by safely landing in Siziwang Banner of China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, according to a report by the official Xinhua News agency.
China thus become only the third nation to demonstrate lunar return technology following the former Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviet Union conducted the last lunar return mission in the 1970s.
Search teams with helicopters recovered the “Xiaofei” orbiter intact at the planned landing zone about 500 kilometers away from Beijing.
The Chang’e-5 T1 test mission is an unequivocally clear demonstration of China’s mounting technological prowess.
Chang’e-5 T1 served as a technology testbed and precursor flight for China’s planned Chang’e-5 probe, a future mission aimed at conducting China’s first lunar sample return mission in 2017.
“Chang’e-5 is expected to collect a 2-kg sample from two meters under the Moon’s surface and bring it home,” according to Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s lunar exploration program.
The ability to gather and analyze pristine new soil and rocks samples from the Moon’s surface would be a boon for scientists worldwide seeking to unlock the mysteries of the solar system’s origin and evolution.
“Xiaofei” was launched on Oct. 23 EDT/Oct. 24 BJT atop an advanced Long March-3C rocket at 2 AM Beijing local time (BJT), 1800 GMT, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China’s southwestern Sichuan Province.
It was boosted on an 840,000 kilometer, eight-day mission trajectory that swung halfway around the far side of the Moon and back. It did not enter lunar orbit.
During its path finding journey, “Xiaofei” captured incredible imagery of the Moon and Earth, eerie globes hanging together in the ocean of space.
The probe was developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The service module is based on China’s earlier Chang’e-2 spacecraft.
On its return, the probe hit the Earth’s atmosphere at around 6:13 a.m. Saturday morning at about 11.2 kilometers per second for reentry and a parachute assisted soft landing in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
The goal was to test and validate guidance, navigation and control, heat shield, and trajectory design technologies required for the sample return capsule’s safe re-entry following a lunar touchdown mission and collection of soil and rock samples from the lunar surface – planned for the Chang’e-5 mission.
“To help it slow down, the craft is designed to ‘bounce’ off the edge of the atmosphere, before re-entering again. The process has been compared to a stone skipping across water, and can shorten the ‘braking distance’ for the orbiter,” according to Zhou Jianliang, chief engineer with the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center.
“Really, this is like braking a car,” said Zhou, “The faster you drive, the longer the distance you need to bring the car to a complete stop.”
China hopes to launch the Chang’e-5 mission in 2017 as the third step in the nation’s ambitious lunar exploration program.
The first step involved a pair of highly successful lunar orbiters named Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 which launched in 2007 and 2010.
The second step involved the hugely successful Chang’e-3 mothership lander and piggybacked Yutu moon rover which safely touched down on the Moon at Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains) on Dec. 14, 2013 – marking China’s first successful spacecraft landing on an extraterrestrial body in history, and chronicled extensively in my reporting here.
See below our time-lapse photo mosaic showing China’s Yutu rover dramatically trundling across the Moon’s stark gray terrain in the first weeks after she rolled all six wheels onto the desolate lunar plains.
The complete time-lapse mosaic shows Yutu at three different positions trekking around the landing site, and gives a real sense of how it maneuvered around on its 1st Lunar Day.
The 360 degree panoramic mosaic was created by the imaging team of scientists Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo from images captured by the color camera aboard Chang’e-3 lander and was featured at Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on Feb. 3, 2014.
China’s space officials are currently evaluating whether they will proceed with launching the Chang’e-4 lunar landing mission in 2016, which was a backup probe to Chang’e-3. Although Yutu was initially successful, it encountered difficulties about a month after rolling onto the surface which prevented it from roving across the surface and accomplishing some of its science objectives.
China is pushing forward with plans to start building a manned space station later this decade and considering whether to launch astronauts to the Moon by the mid 2020s or later.
Meanwhile, as American lunar and planetary missions sit still on the drawing board thanks to visionless US politicians, China continues to forge ahead with no end in sight.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.