China Launches Moon Mission to Test Key Lunar Sample Return Technologies

China launched a robotic mission to the Moon today (Oct. 23 EDT/Oct. 24 BJT) that will test a slew of key technologies required for safely delivering samples gathered from the Moon’s surface and returning them to Earth later this decade for analysis by researchers.

Today’s unmanned launch of what has been dubbed “Chang’e-5 T1” is a technology testbed serving as a precursor 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 T1” was successfully launched 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.

“The test spacecraft separated from its carrier rocket and entered the expected the orbit shortly after the liftoff, according to the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND),” says the official Xinhua news agency. The launch was not broadcast live.

The return capsule was placed on a lunar transfer trajectory that will take it on a simple eight day roundtrip flight around the Moon and journey back to Earth. The orbit had a perigee of 209 kilometers and will reach an apogee of some 380,000 kilometers and swing halfway around the Moon, but not enter lunar orbit.

Ignition and liftoff of the unmanned Chang'e 5 T1 lunar spacecraft atop a Long March-3C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China on Oct. 24, 2014, BJT (Oct. 23 EDT).  Credit: Xinhua/Jiang Hongjing
Ignition and liftoff of the unmanned Chang’e-5 T1 lunar spacecraft atop a Long March-3C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China on Oct. 24, 2014, BJT (Oct. 23 EDT). Credit: Xinhua/Jiang Hongjing

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 and the capsule somewhat resembles a mini-Shenzhou.

On its return, the probe will hit the Earth’s atmosphere at about 11.2 kilometers per second for reentry and a parachute assisted landing. The capsule is targeted to soft land in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The goal is 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.

Technicians at work testing the  Chang'e-5T1 return capsule. Credit: Spacechina.com
Technicians at work testing the Chang’e-5 T1 return capsule. Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation/ Spacechina.com

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, respectively.

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.

This time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander shows the Yutu rover at two different positions during its trek over the Moon’s surface at its landing site from Dec. 15-18, 2013. This view was taken from the 360-degree panorama. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.   See our complete Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014:  http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.htm
This time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander shows the Yutu rover at two different positions during its trek over the Moon’s surface at its landing site from Dec. 15-18, 2013. This view was taken from the 360-degree panorama. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo. See our complete Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.htm

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.

360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander This 360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander shows the Yutu rover at three different positions during its trek over the Moon’s surface at its landing site from Dec. 15-22, 2013 during the 1st Lunar Day. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com.  See our Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.htm
360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander This 360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander shows the Yutu rover at three different positions during its trek over the Moon’s surface at its landing site from Dec. 15-22, 2013, during the 1st Lunar Day. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com. See our Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.htm

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.

Although Yutu was initially very successful, it encountered difficulties about six weeks after rolling onto the surface which prevented it from roving further across the surface and accomplishing some of its science objectives.

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.

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.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about NASA Human and Robotic Spaceflight at Ken’s upcoming presentations:

Oct 26/27: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA

China’s Maiden Moon Rover Mission Chang’e 3 Achieves Lunar Orbit

China’s maiden moon landing probe successfully entered lunar orbit on Friday, Dec. 6, following Sunday’s (Dec. 1) spectacular blastoff – setting the stage for the historic touchdown attempt in mid December.

Engineer’s at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) commanded the Chang’e 3 lunar probe to fire its braking thrusters for 361 seconds, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

The do or die orbital insertion maneuver proceeded precisely as planned at the conclusion of a four and a half day voyage to Earth’s nearest neighbor.

China’s ‘Yutu’ lunar lander is riding piggyback atop the four legged landing probe during the history making journey from the Earth to the Moon.

Liftoff of China’s first ever lunar rover on Dec. 2 local China time from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China. Credit: CCTV
Liftoff of China’s first ever lunar rover on Dec. 2 local China time (Dec. 1 EST) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China. Credit: CCTV

The critical engine burn placed Chang’e 3 into its desired 100 kilometer (60 mi.) high circular orbit above the Moon’s surface at 5:53 p.m. Friday, Beijing Time (4:53 a.m. EST).

An engine failure would have doomed the mission.

Chang’e 3 is due to make a powered descent to the Moon’s surface on Dec. 14, firing the landing thrusters at an altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing in a preselected area called the Bay of Rainbows or Sinus Iridum region.

The Bay of Rainbows is a lava filled crater located in the upper left portion of the moon as seen from Earth. It is 249 km in diameter.

The variable thrust engine can continuously vary its thrust power between 1,500 to 7,500 newtons, according to Xinhua.

The lander is equipped with terrain recognition equipment and software to avoid rock and boulder fields that could spell catastrophe in the final seconds before touchdown if vehicle were to land directly on top of them.

The voyage began with the flawless launch of Chang’e 3 atop China’s Long March 3-B booster at 1:30 a.m. Beijing local time, Dec. 2, 2013 (12:30 p.m. EST, Dec. 1) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, in southwest China.

If successful, the Chang’e 3 mission will mark the first soft landing on the Moon since the Soviet Union’s unmanned Luna 24 sample return vehicle landed nearly four decades ago back in 1976.

Chang’e 3 targeted lunar landing site in the Bay of Rainbows or Sinus Iridum
Chang’e 3 targeted lunar landing site in the Bay of Rainbows or Sinus Iridum

The name for the ‘Yutu’ rover – which means ‘Jade Rabbit’ – was chosen after a special naming contest involving a worldwide poll and voting to select the best name.

‘Yutu’ stems from a Chinese fairy tale, in which the goddess Chang’e flew off to the moon taking her little pet Jade rabbit with her.

The six-wheeled ‘Yutu’ rover will be lowered in stages to the moon’s surface in a complex operation and then drive off a pair of landing ramps to explore the moon’s terrain.

Yutu measures 150 centimeters high and weighs approximately 120 kilograms.

The rover and lander are equipped with multiple cameras, spectrometers, an optical telescope, radar and other sensors to investigate the lunar surface and composition.

Spectacular view of Chang’e 3 thruster firings after separation from upper stage with Earth in the background. Credit: CCTV
Spectacular view of Chang’e 3 thruster firings after separation from upper stage with Earth in the background. Credit: CCTV

Chang’e 3 marks the beginning of the second phase of China’s lunar robotic exploration program.

The lander follows a pair of highly successful lunar orbiters named Chang’e 1 and 2 which launched in 2007 and 2010.

The next step will be an unmanned lunar sample return mission, perhaps by 2020.

China’s Chang’e 3 probe joins NASA’s newly arrived LADEE lunar probe which entered lunar orbit on Oct. 6 following a similarly spectacular night time blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Stay tuned here for continuing Chang’e 3, LADEE, MAVEN and MOM news and Ken’s SpaceX and MAVEN launch reports from on site at Cape Canaveral & the Kennedy Space Center press site.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Chang’e 3, SpaceX, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Dec 10: “Antares ISS Launch from Virginia, Mars and SpaceX Mission Update”, Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Dec 11: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars”, “LADEE & Antares ISS Launches from Virginia”, Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Franklin Institute, Phila, PA, 8 PM

Spectacular Liftoff Thrusts China’s First Rover ‘Yutu’ to the Moon

Liftoff of China’s first ever lunar rover on Dec. 2 local Beijing time from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China. Credit: CCTV
Story updated
See stunning launch video and rover deployment animation below[/caption]

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – China successfully launched its first ever lunar rover bound for the Moon’s surface aboard a Long March rocket today at 1:30 a.m. Beijing local time, Dec. 2, 2013 (12:30 p.m. EST, Dec. 1) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China.

The spectacular night time blastoff of the Long March-3B carrier rocket with the ‘Yutu’ rover was carried live on China’s state run CCTV enabling viewers worldwide to watch the dramatic proceedings as they occurred in real time – including fantastic imagery of booster jettison, spacecraft separation, thruster firings and exquisite views of Earth from cameras aboard the booster.

See the stunning launch video below.

Video caption: China’s Chang’e-3 Lunar Probe Launch on Dec 2, 2013. Credit: CCTV

The entire flight sequence proceeded flawlessly and placed the combined Chang’e 3 lunar landing vehicle and ‘Yutu’ rover on the desired earth-moon transfer orbit following spacecraft separation and unfurling of the life giving solar panels and landing legs, announced Zhang Zhenzhong, director of the Xichang center.

“The Chang’e probe is on its way to the moon, of course, is a symbol of China’s national prowess,” said Zhang Zhenzhong through a translator during the live CCTV broadcast. “Of course, it’s a symbol of China’s national power and prowess.”

The three stage 55 meter (185 foot) tall Long March-3B carrier rocket was uniquely equipped with a quartet of strap on liquid fueled boosters to provide the additional liftoff thrust required for the four day journey to Earth’s Moon.

Spectacular view of Chang’e 3 thruster firings after separation from upper stage with Earth in the background. Credit: CCTV
Spectacular view of Chang’e 3 thruster firings after separation from upper stage with Earth in the background. Credit: CCTV

The name for the ‘Yutu’ rover – which translates as ‘Jade Rabbit’ – was chosen after a special naming contest involving a worldwide poll and voting to select the best name.

‘Yutu’ stems from a Chinese fairy tale, in which the goddess Chang’e flew off to the moon taking her little pet Jade rabbit with her.

The Chang’e 3 lander will fire thrusters to enter lunar orbit on Dec. 6.

It is due to make a powered descent to the lunar surface on Dec. 14, firing thrusters at an altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for touchdown in a preselected area called the Bay of Rainbows or Sinus Iridum region.

Artists concept of China’s ‘Yutu’ rover traversing the lunar surface. Credit: CCTV
Artists concept of China’s ‘Yutu’ rover traversing the lunar surface. Credit: CCTV

If successful, the Chang’e 3 mission will mark the first soft landing on the Moon since the Soviet Union’s unmanned Luna 24 sample return vehicle landed nearly four decades ago back in 1976.

‘Yutu’ is sitting atop the 4 legged landing probe during the launch and voyage to the Moon.

A complex maneuver will be used to deploy the six-wheeled ‘Jade Rabbit’ rover. It will be lowered in stages to the moon’s surface and then drive off a pair of landing ramps to explore the moon’s terrain.

Watch this short CCTV news report with a cool animation showing how the ‘Yutu’ rover reaches the lunar surface.

‘Jade Rabbit’ measures 150 centimeters high and weighs approximately 120 kilograms.

The rover and lander are equipped with multiple cameras, spectrometers, an optical telescope, radar and other sensors to investigate the lunar surface and composition.

One highly anticipated highlight will be when the lander and deployed Jade Rabbit rover image each other on the surface.

The rover is expected to continue operating for at least three months.

The Chang’e 3 landing mission marks the beginning of the second phase of China’s lunar robotic exploration program.

It follows a pair of highly successful lunar orbiters named Chang’e 1 and 2 which launched in 2007 and 2010.

The next step will be an unmanned lunar sample return mission, perhaps around 2020.

China’s Chang’e 3 probe joins NASA’s newly arrived LADEE lunar probe which entered lunar orbit on Oct. 6 following a spectacular night time blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Stay tuned here for continuing SpaceX, MAVEN and MOM news and Ken’s SpaceX and MAVEN launch reports from on site at Cape Canaveral & the Kennedy Space Center press site.

Ken Kremer