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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We've Entered a New Era: The Lunar Anthropocene

Humans on the Moon. Image credit: Envato Elements
Humans on the Moon. Image credit: Envato Elements

For almost half a century, the term “Anthropocene” has been informally used to describe the current geological epoch. The term acknowledges how human agency has become the most significant factor when it comes to changes in Earth’s geology, landscape, ecosystems, and climate. According to a new study by a team of geologists and anthropologists, this same term should be extended to the Moon in recognition of humanity’s exploration (starting in the mid-20th century) and the growing impact our activities will have on the Moon’s geology and the landscape in the near future.

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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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Some Lunar Regolith is Better for Living Off the Land on the Moon

Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. Credit: NASA
Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. Credit: NASA

Between now and the mid-2030s, multiple space agencies hope to send crewed missions to the Moon. of These plans all involve establishing bases around the Moon’s southern polar region, including the Artemis Base Camp and the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). These facilities will enable a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development,” according to the NASA Artemis Program mission statement. In all cases, plans for building facilities on the surface call for a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), where local resources are used as building materials.

This presents a bit of a problem since not all lunar soil (regolith) is well-suited for construction. Much like engineering and construction projects here on Earth, builders need to know what type of soil they are building on and if it can be used to make concrete. In a recent study, planetary scientist Kevin M. Cannon proposed a lunar soil classification scheme for space resource utilization. This could have significant implications for future missions to the Moon, where it would help inform the construction of bases, habitats, and other facilities based on soil type and location.

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China Reveals Its Lunar Lander Design

Visualization of the ILRS, from the CNSA Guide to Partnership (June 2021). Credit: CNSA

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.

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Russia's Luna 25 Lander Crashed Into the Moon

The Luna-25 mission lifting off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome on Aug. 11th. Credit: Roscosmos/Reuters

On August 10th, 2023, Roscosmos’ Luna-25 mission launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome atop a Soyuz-2 rocket. This mission was the first lunar mission to launch from Russia since the 1970s and would be the first Russian lander to touch down in the South-Pole Aitken basin. This mission was part of Roscosmos’ partnership with China to develop an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in the region by 2030. Unfortunately, Russia announced on Saturday, August 19th, that the lander spun out of control and crashed into the surface.

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China Will Use Two Rockets to Put Humans on the Moon

Schematic diagram of China's proposed Lunar Lander. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office

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.

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If We Can Master Artificial Photosynthesis, We Can Thrive in Space

Illustration of a photobioreactor as a means of growing building materials on Mars. Credit: Joris Wegner/ZARM/Universit├Ąt Bremen

By 2030, multiple space agencies will have sent astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Program ended over 50 years ago. These programs will create lasting infrastructure, like the Lunar Gateway, Artemis Base Camp, Moon Village, and the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). In the ensuing decade, the first crewed missions to Mars are expected to occur, culminating with the creation of the first human outposts on another planet. Commercial ventures also want to establish habitats in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), enabling everything from asteroid mining to space tourism.

One of the biggest challenges for this renewed era of space exploration (Space Age 2.0) is ensuring that humans can remain healthy while spending extended periods in space. Foremost among them is ensuring that crews have functioning life support systems that can provide a steady supply of breathable air, which poses its own technical challenges. In a recent study, a team of researchers led by Katharina Brinkert of the University of Warwick described how artificial photosynthesis could lead to a new type of life support system that is smaller, lighter, easier, and more cost-effective to send to space.

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Glass Fibers in Lunar Regolith Could Help Build Structures on the Moon

Electron microscope images of various glass particles identified from China's Chang'e-5 lunar samples. Credit: Laiquan Shen, R.Z. et al. (2023)

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.

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China Tests a Stirling Engine in Orbit

The uncapped Stirling thermoelectric converter. Credit: China Manned Space Agency

The China National Space Agency (CNSA) has made considerable progress in recent years with the development of its Long March 5 (CZ-5) rocket and the completion of its Tiangong-3 space station. The agency also turned heads when it announced plans in June 2021 to create an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) that would rival the Artemis Program. On top of all that, China upped the ante when it announced later that month that it also had plans to send crewed missions to Mars by 2033, concurrent with NASA’s plans.

As part of their growing efforts to become a major power in space, which includes human exploration, China recently announced the completion of the first in-orbit test of a Stirling thermoelectric converter. The Shenzou-15 mission crew performed the test aboard Tiangong-3, and it was the first successful verification of the technology in space. This technology is also being investigated by NASA and is considered a technological solution to the challenges of space exploration, especially where long-duration stays and missions to locations in deep space are concerned.

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