China’s Lunar Exploration Program and the Chang E 2 Mission

, China project manager and senior analyst | October 1, 2010, 1:22 pm EDT
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Image: The Change E 2 Lunar Orbiter as it was being positioned for installation on the Long March 3C launch vehicle at the launch site in Xichang.

China launched its second unmanned mission to the moon this morning at 6:59am EST. The robotic probe being sent on this mission, called the Chang E 2, follows on the success of the Chang E 1 mission, which sent China’s first probe to the moon almost three years ago on October 24, 2007.

The Chang E Project is also called the China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). Chang E is the name China has given to its lunar orbiters, derived from a character in an ancient Chinese folk tale: Chang E is China’s “woman in the moon.”

In 2004, the Chinese government authorized a three-stage robotic lunar exploration mission:

Stage 1: Orbiters will circle the moon and collect data.

Stage 2: Robotic probes will land on the lunar surface to collect and analyzelunar samples and transmit the data back to Earth.

Stage 3: After landing on the moon, the robotic probe will return to Earth with a set of moon rocks and soil sample.

According to a CCTV announcement accompanying today’s Chang E 2 launch, all three stages of the program are now fully funded. There is no fixed timetable for the separate stages, although Chinese space officials have been quoted in the press estimating that the second stage should be well underway by the middle of the decade and the program should be completed by 2020. The second and third stages are believed to require the new Long March 5 launch vehicle, capable of carrying heavier payloads than China’s current fleet of rockets. The LM5 is currently under development and scheduled to enter service in 2012 from a new launch site being constructed near the city of Wenchang on Hainan Island.

The Chang E 1 orbiter circled the moon 200 km above the surface, taking pictures and mapping the lunar surface. It also conducted a survey of the elements and types of materials present on the lunar surface, examining in some detail the characteristics and thickness of the lunar regula: the dusty coating on the surface of the moon. According to a recent Chinese press report the data collected during the first Chang E mission is considered secret and is still being analyzed by the small team of Chinese specialists granted access to the data.  Earlier reports indicated that the Chang E 1 data would be made public.

The Chang E 2 orbiter will circle the moon at an altitude of only 100 km, getting a closer look at the surface with the goal of choosing a site for the lander that is intended to touch down on the lunar surface in Stage 2. Chang E 2 will then maneuver into an elliptical orbit with an apogee of 100km and a perigee of 15km, at which time a high resolution three-dimensional CCD camera will take images of possible landing sites.

What about longer term plans and ongoing rumors about a human mission?

There are many U.S. press reports indicating that China has plans to send humans to the moon, that a human landing is the ultimate objective of the China Lunar Exploration Program, and that this could happen sometime within the next several years. The history and organization of China’s human and lunar programs call these reports into question.

China’s Human Space Flight Program is separate from the Lunar Exploration Program. The current objective of the Human Space Flight Program is to place a permanently occupied Chinese space station in orbit by the end of this decade. The leadership of the Lunar Exploration Program has expressed a strong interest in a human lunar mission, and the possibility is frequently discussed in the Chinese press. But these advocates for a human lunar mission also consistently remind the Chinese press that there are no fixed plans or timetables for such a mission. It is interesting to note that the timelines of both the current Human Space Flight program and the Lunar Exploration Program end at the same time: 2020. Should China contemplate a human lunar mission, it most likely would not occur until after that date.

History of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program

On May 28, 1978, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski gave Chinese Chairman Hua Guofeng, Chairman Mao’s successor, a one-gram moon rock and a small Chinese flag America’s Apollo astronauts brought back from the moon. This is often identified in official Chinese histories as the beginning of China’s lunar exploration program.

Chairman Hua sent the rock to Ouyang Ziyuan, an earth scientist and respected member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who had worked on China’s underground nuclear testing program. Ouyang and his team cut the rock in two, sent one half to the national museum for display kept the other half for analysis. Ouyang and his fellow scientists like to believe the Americans gave them the moon rock to test their research skills. While this is most likely apocryphal, Ouyang and his team do take great pride in having many of their hypotheses about the rock confirmed by U.S. data after it became public.

Inspired by their findings, Ouyang and his fellow scientists launched a twenty-year effort to develop a plan to explore the moon and get it approved by the Chinese government but to no avail. Finally, in the fall of 1998, during a meeting of the Committee on Science and Technology for National Defense (COSTIND), the Chinese space community complained that while China had first-rate space scientists they could only analyze materials and data collected by other countries. It was a winning argument. COSTIND – at the time China’s leading body on science and technology policy – authorized consideration of a lunar exploration program. Four years later, in January of 2004, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao finally approved the first stage of a planned three-stage lunar exploration program at a meeting of the Special Committee of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Wen also approved placing a “full debate” of the later two stages of the lunar exploration program into the Long-Term Chinese National Plan for Science and Technology.

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