Chinese Probe Departs Lunar Orbit for "Outer Space"; No Plans for Human Trips to Moon For Now

Chinese Probe Departs Lunar Orbit for "Outer Space"; No Plans for Human Trips to Moon For Now

Chinese news sources reported yesterday that China’s Chang’e 2 probe has left lunar orbit and is headed for “outer space about 1.5 million km from the earth.” One of the reports added that China has “no plan or timetable for a manned moon landing for now.”

Chang’e 2 arrived at the Moon last fall and has been mapping the lunar surface. China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that the probe completed its main tasks by April 1 and then conducted two additional lunar tasks: taking photos of the Moon’s north and south poles, and descending to within 15 kilometers (km) of the surface to obtain high resolution images of the Bay of Rainbows “the proposed landing ground for future lunar missions.” China is planning to send a robotic lander/rover to the Moon as well as a sample return mission. The most recent dates mentioned for those missions are 2013 and 2017, respectively.

Once those tasks were successfully completed, Chinese scientists decided that Chang’e 2 could be used for “additional exploratory tasks.” Xinhua said the probe is headed to a distance of 1.5 million kilometers and China Daily added that the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point is the destination. The China Daily report quoted a Chinese scientist as saying it is a point in space where several U.S. and European satellites are located, but most of those satellites are at the L1 Lagrange point. Europe does have two spacecraft (Herschel and Planck) at L2, and NASA’s much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope will be placed there.

Chang’e is the name of a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the Moon.

China’s plans for sending astronauts — or “taikonauts” — to the Moon remain unclear. Many statements have been made in Chinese news sources over the years by various Chinese officials or academics that they are or are not planning human lunar missions. This Xinhua story says they have no such plans for now, but as with all such statements in the press, it is difficult to discern government policy. One way to gauge their plans is to look at what they actually are doing and there is no evidence that they are in any rush to send people beyond low Earth orbit. China’s slow but steady human spaceflight program appears focused on steadily increasing experience in low Earth orbit and creating a small space station there.

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