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Emily LakdawallaJanuary 14, 2016

Updates on China's lunar missions

An article about Chang'e 4 appeared on the website of China Daily today, and it contains a small amount of news about China's present and future lunar exploration plans. Thanks to @sinodefence on Twitter for the link and to scientist Quanzhi Ye for some help with translating the news.

It had already been reported that China planned to send Chang'e 4 (the backup model of the Chang'e 3 lander) to the lunar farside. The intent to land on the farside was announced on the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program website on December 2. The China Daily News article mentions launch dates, and they're earlier than previously discussed. A communications relay satellite (based on the design of Chang'e 2) will be launched in June of 2018, and will take up a position at the Moon-Earth L2 point, where it will be able to see both the landing site and Earth. The lander will be launched at the end of 2018. There is still no official word on what the lander's scientific payload will be, or even if it will carry another rover. Interestingly, the article mentions some kind of public involvement in the payload development. China already has experience navigating lunar orbiters to the L2 point. Here's a photo captured by Chang'e 5 T1 from such a point of view:

Earth and the Moon from Chang'e 5 T1


Earth and the Moon from Chang'e 5 T1
The Chang'e 5 test vehicle captured this beautiful view of Earth over the far side of the Moon on October 28, 2014.

Guokr -- a Chinese blog site that often hosts science-related content -- posted a blog with a little more information about the planned Chang'e 4 mission. This is not an official source! The Guokr blog mentions the south pole-Aitken basin as a possible landing site. (There is a map of the whole farside that the Guokr blog claims has the landing site "circled in red," but I've squinted at the map and do not see a red circle.) The Guokr page also has this drawing of the proposed relay satellite. That's a large dish! I wonder if it is a deployable, umbrella-style dish?

CAD drawing of the Chang'e 4 communications relay satellite


CAD drawing of the Chang'e 4 communications relay satellite
The Chang'e 4 relay spacecraft is planned for launch in June 2018. It will travel to the Earth-Moon L2 point to enable communications with a farside lander to be launched later the same year.

The China Daily News article also talks about "successful completion" of the Chang'e 3 mission. This does not mean the end of the mission, but rather an official statement that Chang'e 3 has been successful. Monthly contact with Chang'e 3 continues, although it's not clear if it is still doing scientific observations. A review paper about Chang'e 3 recently appeared in the literature, which helped lunar mapper Phil Stooke update his maps of the Chang'e 3 landing site, likely for the final time. Here's an overview, including the lovely names for the mini-craters observed by the lander during its descent:

Chang'e 3 landing site geography

Chinese Academy of Sciences / Phil Stooke

Chang'e 3 landing site geography
Named features visible during the descent of the Chang'e 3 lander, in a map produced by Phil Stooke for his Atlas of Lunar Exploration. Most of the names are from a Chang'e 3 mission overview paper by Chunlai Li and coauthors. (Li, C. et al, 2015. The Chang’e 3 Mission Overview. Space Science Reviews, v. 190, pp. 85-101.)

And here is the Yutu rover's route map:

Yutu route map (final)

Chinese Academy of Sciences / Phil Stooke

Yutu route map (final)
The Yutu rover's path and scientific activities across the lunar surface, in a map produced by Phil Stooke for his Atlas of Lunar Exploration. The base map consists of a mosaic of images captured by the Chang'e 3 lander during its descent.


Read more: mission status, the Moon, Chang'E program

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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