China is starting to become a force in space exploration. Its main focal point of lunar exploration has started bearing fruit, with several successes, including a sample return mission and the first-ever craft to land on the far side. So what’s next for the Lunar Exploration Program? Establishing a research base may be on the cards, but the country doesn’t just plan to stop at the Moon – they are looking far beyond.
Chang’e 4, one of the lunar landers that has already completed its mission, on the surface of the Moon.
Credit – Xinhua
Recently, China hosted the China-UN Global Partnership Workshop on Space Exploration and Innovation, where Wu Weiren, the head of China’s Lunar Exploration Program, gave an interview to CGTN, one of China’s state-owned news agencies. In it, he detailed the next steps of the lunar exploration program – Chang’e 6, 7, and 8.
Chang’e 6 will be another sample return mission, similar to Chang’e 5, which returned a small amount of lunar soil samples about two years ago. Chang’e 6 is expected to come back with a lot more, allowing more scientists to analyze the material makeup of the lunar south pole.
UT video covering China’s lunar exploration plans.
Chang’e 7 and 8 are expected to work as a team, combining to make a small established lunar research outpost with all the accouterments, such as a rover, lander, orbiter, and a way to get back to orbit. Chang’e 7 itself is also expected to explore some of the caves at the Lunar South pole, where no robot, or human, has ever gone before.
There are plenty of other places that no human or robot has gone before, and China hopes to add some of them to its list of firsts. One of the longer-term goals of the country’s space exploration efforts is an asteroid return mission, similar to what Japan achieved with the Hayabusa missions. In China’s view, understanding the composition of asteroids is key to defending from them, pointing out that the UN listed an unexpected asteroid impact as the number one extinction-level threat to humanity. The world’s biggest country is vested in ensuring that doesn’t happen.
Beyond the asteroid belt, China plans to enact a sample return mission from Mars, as well as visit the outer reaches of the solar system. Details of both still need to be fleshed out, but a sample return from Mars would tread where some ongoing missions are actively going. One to the edge of the solar system would be novel unless you consider the Voyager craft that launched almost 50 years ago.
UT Q&A about China’s human exploration plans.
Following in other agencies’ footsteps could also lead to cooperating with them, which was another point that Mr. Wu stressed in his interview. To help build up the research base on the Moon, China is looking to coordinate with other space-faring agencies in the BRICS (Brazil, Russian, India, China, and South Africa) countries, as well as others in the Middle East and Europe.
Notably absent from the press release was a mention of the other major power in space – the US. Deteriorating relations between the two countries could be responsible for the oversight. However, many missions detailed in China’s plan, such as a lunar research base and Mars Sample Return mission, are also explicit goals of NASA. The timelines for each mission would still put NASA firmly in the lead when it comes to completing any of them first, but they do leave open the possibility of another, less high drama, space race in the not-too-distant future.