China Plans Lunar Sample Return Test This Year

China Plans Lunar Sample Return Test This Year

China plans to launch a robotic spacecraft soon that will test technologies needed to return a lunar sample to Earth.   It did not announce the name of the spacecraft, but said it would be launched by the end of this year.

China laid out its robotic lunar exploration program several years ago.  All the spacecraft are named after Chang’e, China’s mythological goddess of the Moon.  Three already have been launched:  Chang’e-1 (2007) and Chang’e-2 (2010) were orbiters; Chang’e-3 (2013) is a lander/rover combination (the rover, Yutu, did not function as planned).  

The next in that series, Chang’e-4, originally was described as a backup for Chang’e-3, but China now says it will verify technologies for the Chang’e-5 robotic sample return mission.  Chang’e-4 presumably is still planned for launch in 2015, though little is said about it in recent Chinese accounts.  As recently as March 2014, China was saying Chang’e-5, the robotic sample return mission, would launch in 2017, but in August China’s official Xinhua news service said it would launch “around 2020.”  It will use China’s new Long March 5 rocket.  The rocket and its launch site on Hainan Island are both still in development.

Yesterday, Xinhua revealed plans to launch a “recoverable lunar orbiter” by the end of this year that will test capabilities to return a spacecraft to Earth in preparation for Chang’e-5.   This spacecraft, which apparently will not carry the Chang’e designation, arrived at China’s Xichang launch site on Sunday (Beijng time).  Xinhua said it is a “test model” that will test technologies “vital” to Chang’e-5’s success.

Bob Christy at calls it an engineering test for components of a sample return mission, including a prototype reentry vehicle, and a “full command and control ‘dress rehearsal’ for Chang’e 5 in 2017 including setting up the Earthbound trajectory, conducting mid-course corrections, tracking, re-entry and vehicle recovery.”   He anticipates launch in early November, perhaps November 1.

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