A Chinese Long March rocket is scheduled to blast off to the Moon on Sunday evening at about 6pm British time carrying a small robotic rover that will touch down on to the lunar surface in about two weeks’ time – the first soft landing on the Earth’s only natural satellite since 1976.
The take-off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan Province marks the latest stage in China’s grand ambitions not just to put a man on Moon by the end of the next decade, but to build a permanent lunar base from which it can plan missions to Mars and beyond.
While the United States scales back its grand ideals of re-conquering the Moon, China is forging ahead with a bold three-step programme beginning with the robotic exploration of possible landing sites for the first Chinese astronauts to set foot on lunar soil between 2025 and 2030.
“This launch fits in perfectly with China’s logical development of its capabilities in space,” said science writer and astrophysicist David Whitehouse, author of The Moon – A Biography.
“It is sending astronauts into space to do more complicated things each mission, and each Moon probe builds on the last. They plan to bring them together and it’s very possible the next person to walk on the Moon could be Chinese in 15 years’ time,” Dr Whitehouse said.
It is now 10 years since China sent its first astronaut into space. It quickly followed this up with the first Chinese spacewalk and docking procedure in space. At the same time, it has instigated a progressively more complex set of unmanned lunar missions with increasingly sophisticated probes.
Tomorrow’s launch of the Chang’e-3 lunar probe will be the first to involve a soft landing. The last time anything touched down softly on the Moon was Russia’s Luna-24 probe in 1976 – indicating how lunar exploration has shifted towards more remote orbiting satellites.
The probe is targeted to land within a huge volcanic crater known as Sinus Iridum, which means the Bay of Rainbows, on about 14 December. Once it has landed, a small, six-wheeled rover called “Yutu”, or Jade Rabbit, will be powered up by its solar panels to begin the exploration of the surrounding moonscape.
Yutu is designed to roam the lunar surface for at least 90 Earth days – three Lunar days – covering an area of about five square kilometres. It will send probes beneath the surface as well as taking high-resolution images of the rock, a flat area formed from the molten basalt released by lunar volcanoes several billion years ago.
The journey of the Chang’e-3 probe and it’s the final landing will be closely monitored by the European Space Agency (ESA), which is cooperating closely with China. ESA’s own launch station in Kourou, French Guiana, will immediately start receiving signals from the mission after take-off and it will upload commands to the probe on behalf of the Chinese control centre.
“Whether for human or robotic missions, international cooperation like this is necessary for the future exploration of planets, moons and asteroids, benefitting everyone,” said Thomas Reiter, director of ESA’s human spaceflight operations.
The cooperation extends to having a team of Chinese engineers stationed at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, said Erik Soerensen, who is in charge of helping to track the mission for China. “While we’re very international at ESOC, hardly anyone speaks Mandarin, so having Chinese colleagues on site will really help in case of any unforeseen problems,” Mr Soerensen said.
The next unmanned probe, the Chang’e-4, is designed to bring back samples of lunar rock to Earth while the one after that will analyse the impact zone created by the previous landing – opening the way to the second, manned phase of the Chinese space programme.
When China announced its lunar exploration programme in 2004 it made no secret of the fact that it wanted to follow in America’s footsteps, quite literally, but putting a man on the Moon. But even more ambitious than this, China said that the third and final phase of the programme will include the establishment of a moon base.
It was perhaps no accident that China announced this just after President George Bush said in January 2004 that it was time for the US to return to the Moon and to use it as a permanent outpost for a manned mission to Mars.
However, the dream of a lunar base was shattered in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. In 2010 President Barrack Obama cancelled Nasa’s Constellation programme to build a new generation of rockets that could send people to the Moon and beyond in a new spaceship called Orion.
Nasa was left to pick up the pieces by attempting to attract commercial partners. “We are changing the way we do business, fostering a commercial industry that will safely service low Earth orbit so we can focus our energy and resources on sending astronauts to an asteroid and eventually to Mars,” it says on the moribund Constellation website.
One such mission is a 1kg “greenhouse” canister that Nasa hopes to land on the Moon in 2015, courtesy of the unmanned Google Lunar X-Prize lander mission, a privately-sponsored space effort.
The canister will contain a selection of crop seeds to see how they will germinate and grow under the lunar conditions of intense sunlight, high radiation and low gravity. It will provide valuable data for any future lunar base – whoever is the first to build one.
China’s Long March into space
1970: China launches its first satellite, the Dongfanghong 1, which orbits for 26 days and broadcasts the Communist song “The East is Red”.
1975: First remote-sensing satellite collects data on extra-terrestrial objects. Recovered after three days in orbit.
1999: An unmanned experimental spacecraft, the Shenzhou 1, is launched, the first of several over the next three years to prepare the ground for the first manned missions.
2003: Yang Liwei becomes the first Chinese astronaut in space, travelling aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft.
2007: China launches its first lunar probe, the Chang’e 1, which maps the surface of the Moon during a mission lasting 16 months.
2008: The first Chinese spacewalk takes place on the Shenzhou 7, which is the third manned space mission. Zhai Zhigang steps out into space 43 years after the first ever spacewalk, by Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in 1974.
2011: First unmanned space docking, of Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1. The module is a prototype of first Chinese space station, planned for 2020.
2012: First manned space docking, involving China’s first woman in space, Liu Yang.