Chinese Lunar Spacecraft Gets New Mission – UPDATE

Chinese Lunar Spacecraft Gets New Mission – UPDATE

UPDATE:  January 13, 2015:  This article was updated to reflect the arrival of the service module in lunar orbit.

The service module for China’s lunar sample return test mission last year now has a new mission — returning to lunar orbit for further tests.

China launched the spacecraft — variously referred to in the West as the CE-5 Test Flight Device, Chang’e Lunar Sample Container Test Flight, or Chang’e-5T1 — on an eight day mission on October 23, 2014 Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  The main purpose was to test technologies for reentering Earth’s atmosphere from lunar distance in preparation for China’s planned Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission.   The capsule separated from its service module and successfully landed in China on October 31 EDT (November 1 local time in China).

The service module, however, remained in space.  Initially China redirected it to the L2 Earth-Moon Lagrange point.  “It was the first time for a Chinese spacecraft to reach the L2 point,
and the service module completed three circles around the point”
according to Zhao Wenbo as quoted by
China’s Xinhua news service.  Zhao is identified as vice director of
the lunar probe and space project center of China’s State Administration
of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND).

On January 5, 2015, China announced that it was on its way back to lunar orbit.   It arrived there on January 11 and placed into an initial orbit 5,300 x 200 kilometers with a period of 8 hours.  After two more braking maneuvers, on January 13 it reached its final 127-minute orbit at approximately 200 x 200 kilometers.

No details were provided about what experiments are being conducted by the service module, only that it is related to “more tests” for the Chang’e-5 mission.

Chang’e-1 (2007) and Chang’e-2 (2010) were lunar orbiters and Chang’e-2 was later redirected to encounter asteroid Toutatis, which it did in 2012.  Chang’e-3 was a lander that delivered the Yutu rover to the lunar surface in December 2013.  A mechanical fault prevented the rover from fulfilling its primary objectives, but it returned data for many months and instruments on Chang’e-3 itself reportedly are still working.

This fourth Chinese lunar mission does not carry the Chang’e-4 designation for unknown reasons.  Although China has talked about Chang’e-4 in the past as a backup to Chang’e-3, it is not clear today what that mission entails or when it will be launched. This mission does not appear to have an official Chinese designation, instead simply being described in news reports as a test related to Chang’e-5.  Chinese accounts focus on Chang’e-5, the lunar sample return mission that is scheduled for launch in 2017 on China’s new Long March 5 rocket from the new Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island.

Chang’e is China’s mythological goddess of the Moon.

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