Weiren Wu, the chief designer of China’s Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), recently announced an ambitious plan to place Chinese footprints on the lunar surface by 2030. This announcement comes just ahead of this year’s Space Day of China, an annual event that is celebrated on April 24 to showcase the achievements of the space industry to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
“By 2030, the Chinese will definitely be able to walk on the moon. It’s not a problem,” Wu said in an interview with China Media Group (CMG). This latest announcement comes less than a year after CLEP received government approval from China to begin Phase 4 of CLEP, whose program structure consists of four phases of robotic lunar exploration, with the first three phases having achieved an impeccable success rate.
Phase 1 consisted of two missions, the first of which, the Chang’e-1 lunar orbiter, was the first Chinese lunar mission and was launched in October 2007. After a successful mission, she intentionally crashed on the moon in March 2009. The second mission was the lunar orbiter Chang’e-2, launched in October 2010 and after a successful primary mission in lunar orbit, the mission was expanded to explore asteroid 4179 Toutatis, which it successfully performed in December 2012. Contact with the spacecraft was lost in 2014.
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Phase 2 consisted of three missions, the first of which was the Chang’e-3 lunar lander/rover combination, launched in December 2013 and currently active. The second mission was Queqiao-1, launched in May 2018 to serve as a relay satellite sent to the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point to communicate with Chang’e-4, launched in December 2018 and a combination moon was Lander and Rover, the latter was called Yutu-2. This was also the first soft landing on the far side of the moon in history.
Image of the Yutu-2 rover moving away from the Chang’e-4 lander in January 2019. (Source: China National Space Administration)
Phase 3 consisted of two missions, the first being the Chang’e-5 T1 experimental test flight, launched in October 2014 and designed to test the various rendezvous and capsule technologies that would be required for a lunar sample return mission to come to an end Conducted in 2020 with Chang’e-5 when it successfully returned 1731 grams of lunar regolith to Earth.
Phase 4 will consist of four missions, the first of which will be the Queqiao-2 relay satellite, due to be launched in 2024 and will function in the same way as its predecessor for the remaining Phase 4 lunar missions, Chang’e-6, -7 and -8 to be launched in May 2024, 2026 and 2028 respectively.
“There is a relay satellite up there, the main function of which is to solve the communication problem between Earth and them, and also to support Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8 since they will land in different places,” Wu said.
Wu also discussed how Chang’e-6, planned as another lunar sample return mission, will collect and bring back lunar samples from the far side of the moon in 2024. He notes that this will be the first time in history that lunar samples taken from the far side of the moon will be returned to Earth. The Chang’e-7 mission will travel to the south pole of the moon with the main objective of looking for evidence of water that may be there.
“We hope to find water there. If water is ever found, it would be great news for human survival on the moon,” Wu said.
In the final mission of the fourth phase, Chang’e-8 will work with Chang’e-7 to provide the framework for the construction of a future lunar research station near the lunar south pole, which will be used to better understand local resource use, too known as ISRU, on the moon.
Wu also revealed China’s ambitious goal of establishing a moon-centric space internet to help with future lunar missions as well.
“We are building a satellite constellation around the moon, a system that can provide communications, navigation and remote sensing services. After that, we can carry out future space exploration,” Wu said.
While CNSA has already laid out a well-executed lunar exploration program along with a blueprint for the coming years, Wu discussed establishing an international lunar research station, also called ILRS, with the goal of completing the basic structure of the outpost by 2030, stressing that China is ready to invite international scientists and partners to participate in the project.
Image from a video animation showing the Lunar Research Station discussed by CLEP Chief Designer Weiren Wu. (Source: China Media Group)
“The international lunar research station built by China is open (to international partners),” Wu said. “We welcome the participation of developed countries such as the United States and European countries. We also hope that the BRICS countries and some underdeveloped African countries will join us. We have proposed an initiative for everyone to sign contracts, agreements or strategic memoranda of understanding.”
Not only is China making incredible strides in lunar exploration, it also has an active space station, Tiangong, which when fully assembled will be a four-module platform in low-Earth orbit, with the third and most recent module, Mengtian, launched into space was launched in October 2022 and the last module, Xuntian, is currently scheduled to be launched in 2024.
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