China’s future lunar exploration plans


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In a poster presented on Tuesday at this week’s 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, China outlined its future plans for lunar exploration.

Systematically considering the major scientific issues of the Moon and the lunar in-situ utilization resources, Chinese scientists and technical experts have proposed a vision to preliminarily build a research station on the Moon’s South Pole by implementing 3-4 missions before 2035.

The first mission will carry out a comprehensive exploration in the South Pole of the Moon, including the topography, elemental composition and volatile contents of the Moon, and the information on the structure of the South Pole from shallow to deep levels. Water (ice) in the permanent shadow area was detected in-situ to reveal the content, distribution and source of water and volatiles on the surface of the Moon. After that, a sampling return mission will be arranged to collect samples from the South Pole of the Moon and return them to the Earth. In addition to the scientific exploration of the Moon, the utilization of lunar resources should also be taken into consideration. In later missions, lunar platforms will be used to make astronomical or earth observations and to consider the use of lunar resources. [emphasis mine]

China clearly intends to put its footprints on the Moon. It is not fiddling around with an orbital lunar station, as it looks like we are with NASA’s Gateway project. While China explores the surface, we will be stuck in orbit (maybe).

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4 comments

  • Wodun

    My concern is that in a hurry to return to the moon, site selection wouldn’t be as detailed as it should and that the billions spent on lunar infrastructure would either lock us into a single location or that the infrasructure couldn’t be reused for other missions. Also, a plan for humans that doesn’t take advantage of SH/S will be made obsolete in the near future.

    The manner in which we return to the Moon is more important that beating China to the Moon. It’s a marathon not a race.

    If there is some measure of pride that it is deemed important enough to return Americans to the Moon before China tries for their first time, it should be recognized it will not necessarily be the most efficient or cost effective way to build a long term presence, which should be the real goal.

    China views themselves in competition with us but they are focused on what they think is important, and America is only a part if that.

  • mkent

    “China clearly intends to put its footprints on the Moon. It is not fiddling around with an orbital lunar station, as it looks like we are with NASA’s Gateway project. While China explores the surface, we will be stuck in orbit (maybe).”

    First of all, having a space station in cislunar space is better than being capable of only direct flights to the lunar surface. It allows for a re-usable lunar architecture that can explore many areas of the lunar surface at much less cost. It also allows for that same architecture to be used for manned Mars flights as well. Leaving aside the particular orbit chosen for the Gateway, the architecture is far superior to the alternative.

    Second, NASA’s current plans have them deploying a large unmanned lunar lander in 2024 — that’s only five years away. They also begin manned landings in 2028. That should beat China to the surface. I’m not convinced NASA can hold to those plans, but the current NASA administrator does seem willing to shake things up trying to stick to the schedule. That’s a good sign.

  • Edward

    mkent,
    You wrote: “First of all, having a space station in cislunar space is better than being capable of only direct flights to the lunar surface. It allows for a re-usable lunar architecture that can explore many areas of the lunar surface at much less cost. It also allows for that same architecture to be used for manned Mars flights as well.

    I agree. We will need a space station in lunar orbit or at Earth-Moon Lagrange point 1. It will be very useful and cost effective. Unfortunately, it is too early for such an outpost, and we still do not yet know all the requirements that it will have to meet. ULA has a vision of the future, but ((F)LOP) Gateway (To Nowhere) does not seem to meet that vision:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxftPmpt7aA (7 minutes)

    ULA has proposed a possible future for commerce and exploration. Gateway does different things than they envision will be needed. So far, only the Chinese may have plans in place to explore the water ice that may be at the Moon’s poles, and no one is yet planning to use that water. Using that water as propellant is really the most cost reducing part of having such an orbital outpost as Gateway, because that is an expensive outpost.

    In the meantime, direct ascent/Earth orbit rendezvous/Lunar orbit rendezvous methods are the low cost way to get to the Moon. And no one has a real plan for going to Mars. The closest we have for a plan for Mars is SpaceX’s direct ascent approach, bypassing Gateway and any other outpost.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Both SpaceX and Dr. Robert Zubrin have shown plans for relatively low-cost and sustainable lunar operations architectures and neither involves building a pointless station in any lunar orbit first. The particular orbit chosen for Gateway imposes significant additional delta-V penalties for landers based there. The orbit in question was chosen mainly because it was the only one SLS could reach. Said orbit was also the basis for the only semi-reusable lander architecture NASA has suggested as a baseline in its lander RFP program. Recent developments have now called into serious question whether SLS will have any significant future role anent Gateway, but there seems to have been no move to change its planned seriously sub-optimal orbit. A station in some sort of lunar orbit will very likely be needed at some point, but Gateway is not going to be that station, as currently envisioned, and NRHO is not going to be its orbit.

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