China’s lunar mission Chang’e 5-T1 sets stage for future possibilities
On Tuesday, Jan. 13, the Chinese space program enjoyed a new level of lunar success as the service module part of their unmanned Chang’e 5 Test 1 mission (CE5-T1) entered orbit around the Moon. Chang’e 5-T1 was launched on Oct. 24 and completed an eight-day mission before the return capsule, called Xiaofei, made its way back to Earth on Nov. 1. The service module, which is based on China’s DFH-3A satellite bus, stayed behind in orbit around the Earth before a trip to the Lagrange point L2, where it operated from late November to early January before its journey to the Moon itself.
“It was the first time for a Chinese spacecraft to reach the L2 point, and the service module completed three circles around the point, expanding probe missions,” said Zhao Wenbo, vice director of the lunar probe and space project center of China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), as quoted by the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
However, the Chang’e 2 mission reached L2 back in August of 2011, at which time Huang Hao, chief designer of that spacecraft, declared that mission “the first time that a Chinese spacecraft reaches Liberation point 2,” evidently the more accurate situation.
As the current mission entered lunar orbit earlier this week, the spacecraft used three braking maneuvers over three days to decelerate the craft so that it could enter the correct 127-minute orbit successfully, according to SASTIND.
The spacecraft still isn’t finished with its job. In February and March, it will “undergo at least two Virtual Target Rendezvous exercises that will demonstrate trajectories and guidance techniques needed in the Autonomous Lunar Orbit Rendezvous that will be a critical part of the Chang’e 5 mission,” according to Spaceflight101, “since the Ascent Vehicle containing samples acquired from the lunar surface will have to automatically link up with its return craft.”
This mission is also equipped with a camera that, if all goes as planned, will be used to collect high-resolution imagery of potential landing spots for Chang’e 5 itself. Chang’e 5 is the next launch on the Chinese lunar manifest, currently slated to launch in 2017. It is intended to land on the Moon, collect samples, and return to Earth.
The Chang’e program is named for the goddess of the Moon in Chinese mythology, just as the Apollo program was named for a mythological Moon god. The Chang’e 1 mission launched in October of 2007 and operated in lunar orbit for about a year and a third, during which it mapped the Moon and collected a wealth of scientific data.
Chang’e 2, a follow-up to the first mission, launched in 2010. After its time in lunar orbit, it made it to L2, where it orbited for several months before being directed to fly by asteroid 4179 Toutatis and then out into deep space.
China became the third nation to successfully soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon, after the United States and the former Soviet Union, with Chang’e 3 in Dec. of 2013.
The Chinese are not interested in the Moon for merely academic purposes. According to The Times, the country may also hope to eventually mine helium-3, a rare isotope of helium. Professor Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, recently said that the Moon is “so rich” in the isotope that this could “solve humanity’s energy demand for around 10,000 years at least.”
According to ground crew reports, the service module houses support systems that are currently functioning nominally. China Central television states, the module now orbiting the Moon is filled with gear to collect further data useful in planning China’s Chang’e 5 lunar mission set for 2017. The Chang’e 5 is a robotic sample-collecting lunar mission, aiming to land on the Moon, collect samples, and then return them to Earth.
Rae Botsford End is a freelance writer and editor whose primary work currently is writing technical white papers, contributing to SFI, and working on a speculative fiction novel that she hopes to have published soon. Rae wanted an opportunity to report on the various space-related events in and around Florida's Space Coast and approached SFI's founder about the possibility. Rae now covers an array of subjects for our growing website.