Spaceflight Insider

China delays lunar sample return mission following rocket failure

The Long March 5 (Y2) rocket

The Long March 5 (Y2) rocket lifts off from Wenchang at 19:23:23 local time on July 2, 2017. Photo Credit: CNSA

China has postponed its $3 billion (20 billion yuan) Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission in the wake of the July failure of its Long March 5 (Y2) rocket to reach orbit.

Chang’e 5 is the third of three steps that make up the Chinese Lunar Exploration Project (CLEP), whose goal is to orbit, land, maneuver around the lunar terrain, and return samples from the Moon.

Long March 5 (Y3) components

Long March 5 (Y3) components in Tianjin earlier in 2017. Photo Credit: CASC

Originally scheduled to launch sometime in November of 2017, the spacecraft is set to land on the northwestern region of the Moon, near Mons Rumker in the Moon’s Ocean of Storms (Oceanus Procellarum).

The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) envisions using the Long March 5 for future crewed Moon missions and for a 2020s Mars sample return mission.

An upgraded Long March 5 B is currently planned to eventually carry the planned Chinese space station into orbit.

At present under official investigation, the July 2 rocket failure is believed to have occurred because of a first stage problem. CNSA hopes to have a detailed report on the incident by the end of the year.

Another Long March 5 launch is scheduled for November and might carry a second Shijian-18 satellite as a replacement for the first one, which was destroyed in the failed launch.

On Monday, September 25, CNSA’s Tian Yulong, announced the delay of the Moon mission at the International Astronautical Conference (IAC) held in Adelaide, Australia.

lunar sample return mission

Framegrab from a video demonstrating the 2017 Chinese Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission. Image Credit: Youku/Framegrab

Chinese scientists now expect the launch to occur sometime around early 2019 although no official timetable has been established.

The Chang’e 5 lunar probe, having already undergone simulated launch, landing, sampling, and takeoff, is unaffected by the rocket’s problem.

Chang’e 5, weighing 8.2 metric tons, includes a lander, a service module, an ascent unit, and a return vehicle. It requires the Long March’s heavy launch vehicles to take it into orbit.

Following its landing on the Moon’s surface, the lander will collect lunar samples and place them on the ascent unit. The ascent unit will rendezvous with the service module in lunar orbit, where it will transfer the samples to the return vehicle.

The return vehicle will then separate from the service module and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere using a maneuver known as a skip re-entry.

Chang’e 5 will be the first lunar sample return mission in more than 40 years since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission, which brought back a sample from the lunar region known as Mare Crisium in 1976.

China has taken slow but steady strides in terms of space exploration since the CNSA was formed in 1993. The first Chinese Taikonaut, Yang Liwei, was launched on Oct. 15, 2003, aboard Shenzhou 5. With the Chinese space agency having already sent one lander / rover to the Moon, with the flight of the Chang’e 3 lander and rover back in December of 2014. 

View of far side of the Moon and Earth from Chang'e 5-T1.

The far side of the Moon with Earth in the background. Taken by China’s Chang’e 5-T1 at a distance of about 200,000 miles (∼322,000 km) from Earth. Photo Credit: CNSA

 

 

 

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Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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