During the National Space Council meeting in March. Vice President Mike Pence declared that the United States was in a space race with China. That declaration was not particularly newsworthy; China’s military-run space program has been surging in recent years as the emerging Asian superpower seeks superiority on the high frontier.
Pence did raise some eyebrows when he used China’s rise to justify move up America’s return to the moon by four years from 2028 to 2024. Was China’s human spaceflight program really planning to move that quickly? Does the moon have that much strategic value? Were the two nations really in a race to the lunar surface?
After a record 39 launches in 2018, China is planning to launch over 50 satellites aboard more than 30 launch vehicles this year, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) has announced.
The manifest includes the return to flight of China’s largest launch vehicle, Long March 5, after a two-year stand down. The booster, which can lift 14 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), failed during its second flight on July 2, 2017 after a successful maiden flight eight months earlier.
China’s aggressive long-range program explore the moon includes a heavy focus on the south pole where probes have detected water.
China’s Chang’e-4 mission is currently exploring the moon with a rover and lander on the far side. The vehicles are communicating with Earth via an orbiting spacecraft. The Chang’e-4 mission also includes two lunar CubeSats, one of which is still operational.
China plans to launch the Chang’e-5 mission by the end of 2018 to bring back soil samples from the lunar surface. The plan is to bring back at least 2 kg (4.4 lb) of soil from the Mons Rümker region in the northwest section of the moon.
Xinhua reports there are three other moon missions planned in the years ahead:
Chang’e-7, set for launch in 2023, will carry out comprehensive surveys of the south pole;
Chang’e-6, scheduled to be launched in 2024, will bring back samples from the lunar south pole; and,
Chang’e-8, scheduled for launch in 2027, will test technologies to lay the ground work for a research base on the lunar surface.
China expects to conduct crewed missions to a lunar base sometime during the 2030’s.
In recent weeks, Chinese officials have revealed more details about the investigation into the Long March 5 launch failure last year as well as their ambitious launch plans for this year, which include a landing on the far side of the moon.
Long March 5 will be returned to flight in the second half of 2018, according to Bao Weimin, head of the Science and Technology Committee of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). Engineers have identified the cause of a launch failure that occurred last July and are working to verify it, he said.
The International Astronautical Congress has been going on all week down in Adelaide, Australia. In addition to Elon Musk’s presentation on Friday and some news I’ve already posted here, there have been a few updates on various programs.
Boeing CST-100 Starliner. Boeing is aiming for a test flight of the CST-100 Starliner to the International Space Station in the third quarter of 2018. However, the first crewed test flight could slip from the fourth quarter of 2018 into the first quarter of 2019. Link
Rocket Lab. The company’s next test launch will carry will two Dove Cubesats from Planet and a pair of Lemur CubeSsats from Spire Global. The satellite will allow Rocket Lab to test deploying spacecraft from the second stage of its Electron rocket. The launch is planned for several weeks from now. Link
Long March 5. The failure of a Long March 5 booster in July will delay the launch of China’s Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission, which had been scheduled for November. The Chang’e-4 mission, which will land on the far side of the moon, also will be delayed. That flight had been scheduled for late next year. The accident investigation is ongoing. Link
Chinese media report the launch of the Long March 5 rocket carrying an experimental communications satellite failed in flight on Sunday.
“An anomaly occurred during the flight of the rocket, which blasted off at 7:23 p.m. from Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern province of Hainan,” the Xinhua news agency reported.
Xinhau provided no further details about the failure. An investigation is underway.
The Shijian 18 communications satellite was lost in the accident. The spacecraft was the first in a new class of DFH-5 satellites designed for high-power performance communications. Shijian 18 would have tested ion propulsion and other technologies.
China’s most powerful booster, the Long March 5 had a successful maiden launch last November. It is slated to launch the Chang’e-5 lunar mission later this year. Chang’e 5 will land on the moon and return soil samples to Earth.
The failure comes two weeks after a Long March 3B suffered a malfunction that left the ChinaSat 9A communications satellite in a lower than planned orbit.
It’s going to be busy year in space in 2017. Here’s a look at what we can expect over the next 12 months.
A New Direction for NASA?
NASA’s focus under the Obama Administration has been to try to commercialize Earth orbit while creating a foundation that would allow the space agency to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s.
Whether Mars will remain a priority under the incoming Trump Administration remains to be seen. There is a possibility Trump will refocus the space agency on lunar missions instead.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is currently viewed as a leading candidate for NASA administrator, has written two blog posts focused on the importance of exploring the moon and developing its resources. Of course, whether Bridenstine will get NASA’s top job is unclear at this time.
A white paper outlining China’s space policy for the next five years calls for a sample return mission to the moon, a landing on the far side of Earth’s closest neighbor, and the launch of an orbiter and lander to Mars by 2020.
China will also begin constructing a permanent space station and research and development work on a heavy-lift launcher, reusable boosters and satellite servicing systems.
The nation also wants to expand international cooperation in areas that include remote sensing, space applications, lunar and planetary exploration, and human spaceflight.
Chinese engineers have begun assembly of the first flight-ready Long March-5 rocket, which is set to make its inaugural launch later this year. The heavy-lift booster will be capable of lofting 25 metric tons into low Earth orbit.
Yang Hujun, vice chief engineer, has spoken about the next steps for the Long March-5 project.
“After the assembly is finished in the first half of this year, it will take a little more than a month to test it to ensure that the product is in good shape. The first launch will be made after it is out of the plant in the latter half of the year. ”
The new generation of rockets will come in 6 slightly different models – for manned space travel, as well as for the lunar and Martian exploration programs.
Among planned missions, is the Chang’e-5 lunar probe, which will be launched by the high-thrust carrier rocket to collect samples of moon soil by the end of 2017.
It was a banner year for launches worldwide in 2014, with the total reaching a 20-year high as Russia and India debuted new launch vehicles, NASA tested its Orion crew spacecraft, China sent a capsule around the moon, and Japan launched a spacecraft to land on an asteroid.
There were a total of 92 orbital launches, the highest number since the 93 launches conducted in 1994. In addition, Russia and India conducted successful suborbital tests of new boosters.
China has launched a spacecraft to the moon designed to pave the way for a future lunar sample return mission.
The spacecraft, launched today aboard a Long March 3C rocket, will circle the moon and then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in a test of its navigation system and heat shield. It is a precursor for the Chang’e-5 sample return mission set to launch around 2017.
The Long March 3C upper stage, which will also loop around the moon, is carrying LuxSpace’s M4 payload. The payload includes an amateur radio beacon and a radiation sensor.
“This is the first ever privately funded mission to the moon and it happens 45 years after the first landing on the moon,” saide Jochen Harms, managing director of LuxSpace.
M4 stands for Manfred Memorial Moon Mission. The mission honors Manfred Fuchs, the founder of LuxSpace’s parent company OHB, who died 0n April 26, 2014.