China Readies Lunar Sample Return Test Flight With Amateur Radio Passenger

China Readies Lunar Sample Return Test Flight With Amateur Radio Passenger

China will launch a robotic spacecraft to fly around the Moon and return to Earth as early as tomorrow as a test related to its goal of returning a lunar sample later in the decade.  China’s Xinhua news service reports today that the launch will take place between Friday and Sunday.  The spacecraft will carry an amateur radio payload and AMSAT-UK says the launch is scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, October 23, at 18:00 GMT, which is 2:00 am Friday, October 24, local time in China.  (Or 2:00 pm Thursday Eastern Daylight Time).

China has indicated for quite some time that it plans to launch this test mission, but has provided few details, including its name.  Most of the public information comes from the amateur radio community, especially the AMSAT-UK website.  The 14-kilogram battery-powered amateur radio payload is built by LuxSpace, a Luxembourg company that is part of OHB.  The payload, 4M-LXS, honors the late Manfred Luchs, OHB’s founder, where “4M” refers to Manfred Memorial Moon Mission.  AMSAT-UK reports that the entire mission is expected to last 196 hours.  

The spacecraft was delivered to the Xichang launch site in August.  The planned landing site has not been specified.   Xinhua said today only that the mission involves “entering, exiting, and re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere and landing on the Earth” and demonstrating the spacecraft can be slowed “so it can land safely at a predetermined location.”  China has not attempted atmospheric reentry as such speeds before.

China’s lunar probes to date have been named Chang’e after China’s mythological goddess of the Moon.  Chang’e-1 (2007) and Chang’e-2 (2010) were lunar orbiters (and Chang’e-2 was later redirected to fly past the asteroid Toutatis, which it did successfully in 2012).  Chang’e-3 landed on the Moon last year and delivered the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover, which was only a partial success.  

Since China has not officially announced the name of this upcoming test mission, it is referred to variously by observers of the Chinese space program.  Perhaps “Chang’e-5 precursor” is the best designation for now.  Chang’e-5 itself is scheduled for launch in 2017 from China’s new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.  (Chang’e-4 was originally described as a back-up for Chang’e-3, but more recent Chinese media reports have said it would be adapted to verify technologies for Chang’e-5.  An August 2014 CCTV report said Chang’e-4 would be launched in 2015, however, so apparently that is not the name of this upcoming test mission.)

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