In late 2013, China became the third country to land an automated probe on the Moon with the Jade Rabbit. Despite its technical glitches, it returned valuable data and lasted until August 2016. Now China aims to up the ante with a lunar sample return mission slated for later this year. It is also planning a separate mission to the far side of the Moon that may launch in 2018.
“With a weight of 8.2 tons, the lunar probe is comprised of four parts: an orbiter, a returner, an ascender and a lander,” China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. consultant Ye Peijian told China’s official newscaster, CCTV.
The complex sample return mission, dubbed Chang’e-5, will launch from Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province using China’s heavy-lift rocket Long March-5. If both the lander and the ascender land successfully, the lander will put samples in the ascender. The ascender will then launch and dock with the orbiter and returner, which will head back to Earth. Only the return vehicle will return to Earth with the samples it contains.
The Chang’e-5 team is currently finishing up work on the flight model phase of the mission. The Chinese space program considers “orbiting, landing and returning” to be three critical steps in the progress of its space program. This is not surprising considering that China is considering long-range plans for its developing capability in space that may include manned lunar landings by 2036.
The 2018 mission, Chang’e-4, will attempt a soft landing on the far side of the Moon and carry out tests of in-situ and roving capability, with results being sent through a relay at the Earth-Moon L2 point. Future plans for robotic space missions also include a possible Mars probe in 2020.