In the 2020’s, China aims to lay groundwork for a moon base — plus missions to Mars

by Alan Boyle GeekWire

Video captured by China’s Chang’e-4 lander shows the Yutu 2 rover roaming the surface of the moon’s far side. (CNSA via Weibo)

Flush from the success of the world’s first rover mission to the moon’s far side, Chinese space officials said today that they’re planning robotic trips to the lunar south pole to prepare the way for a crewed moon base.

The officials discussed future lunar exploration plans less than two weeks after the Chang’e-4 lander’s history-making touchdown, and only a few days after China’s space agency released video of the lander’s descent and lunar surface activities.

Chang’e-4 and its solar-powered Yutu 2 rover are hibernating during the 2-week-long lunar night, but their handlers are already thinking about sending probes to places where the sun almost always shines.

Permanently lit regions around the south pole are considered prime locations for a lunar base, particularly because permanently shadowed craters nearby are judged likely to hold the reserves of frozen water needed for crewed operations.

The next mission in China’s lunar exploration program, known as Chang’e-5, will head for the moon by the end of the year and bring samples back to Earth, the official Xinhua news agency quoted Wu Yanhua, deputy head of the China National Space Administration, as saying.

“Experts are still discussing and verifying the feasibility of subsequent projects, but it’s confirmed that there will be another three missions after Chang’e-5,” Wu said at a news briefing organized by the State Council Information Office.

All those missions carry the designation “Chang’e,” which evokes the name of Chinese mythology’s moon goddess.

Chang’e-6’s goal is to bring samples back from the lunar south pole. Chang’e-7 will conduct surveys of the south polar region, including an assessment of terrain, physical composition and the space environment.

Follow-up surveys will be conducted by Chang’e-8, which will also test key technologies for building a research station on the moon, Xinhua reported.

“China, the U.S., Russia and countries from Europe are all studying whether to set up a research base or station on the moon, like if we can build houses with lunar soil via 3-D printing technology,” China’s CGTN network quoted Wu as saying. “We are going to verify some technologies via Chang’e-8, which is expected to do some preliminary exploration for a joint moon research base in the future.”

Wu said he expected commercial ventures to capitalize on the technologies developed for lunar exploration.

“We are in this lunar exploration project thanks to numerous cutting-edge high technologies,” he said. “Therefore, social capital, especially private enterprises, is welcomed to further engage in the transformation and industrialization of these technologies to serve people all over the world.”

Wu also confirmed that China is planning to send a robotic probe to Mars in the 2020 time frame. Previous reports have suggested Chinese officials are targeting July or August 2020 for the launch of an orbiter and a rover to the Red Planet.

The summer of 2020 is a favorable opportunity for Mars missions because of the relative positions of Earth and Mars in their orbits at that time. NASA and the European Space Agency have scheduled the launches of their Mars surface rovers for that same time frame.

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