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Chinese lunar sample return mission set for November

The competition heats up: China has scheduled for November its next mission to the Moon, the first lunar sample return mission since the American Apollo manned missions and the first robotic sample return mission since the Soviets did it in 1976.

China has announced that its Chang’e-5 automated Moon surface sampling and return mission will launch in late November 2017. The 8.2-tonne probe will launch on a Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre on Hainan island, and attempt the first lunar sample return since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.

The mission will be complex, with some of the key technologies and techniques involved will also be applicable for a Chinese Mars sample return mission, planned for around 2030, as well as future crewed journeys to the lunar surface. “The lunar probe is comprised of four parts: an orbiter, a return module, an ascender and a lander,” state media Xinhua quoted Ye Peijian, one of China’s leading aerospace experts, as saying.

Having soft-landed on the Moon and drilled for and collected samples, an ascent module will perform an automated docking with an orbiter in a lunar orbit 380,000 km away from Earth. The orbiter will then head on a trajectory for home, with the return module separating from the orbiter close to Earth and making a high speed atmospheric ‘skip’ reentry.

Without question the Chinese program is ramping up, and it is doing so in a very rational and pragmatic manner. It is also clear that they are carefully developing the technologies necessary to later launch manned missions to the Moon, which could also include sending their first space stations on lunar orbital missions.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

11 comments

  • Todd Brown

    Robert,
    While I believe a mission to Mars sounds nice…I think at this time it is impracticable given our lack of heavy lift rockets and the amount of time to ferry astronauts to Mars and then back to Earth. It makes much more sense in my opinion, to get back to the moon, develop new techniques on living on the Moon in habitats that would suffice, whether they be underground or man-made structures on the surface. We could then learn how to deal with the extremes of living on a foreign body that, in an emergency is only days away from Earth not months. We can in the meantime work on better propulsion, faster and much larger rockets that can help facilitate our next move with this knowledge, not to mention the costs would be far less than going to Mars.
    ~Todd

  • LocalFluff

    Todd Brown, Kuznetz on the Space Show yesterday made the point that people are really interested in Mars, while talks about the Moon doesn’t inspire much reaction. Just look at the popular culture, when is the Moon even being mentioned? It is much easier to win popular support for Mars and it gives a much greater political gain. On the highest level of decision making, the popular will might be decisive. NASA/private space will simply be instructed to overcome the technical issues.

  • Insomnius

    There are just so many good reasons to go back to the Moon first and nobody can generate or inspire any love for it? I just don’t understand why people would rather go some where else so far far far away, when we have such a huge resource to explore as our next door neighbor.

  • Noah Peal

    Discover valuable minerals on the moon and settlement will follow. The moon is closer in time than were the gold fields of California for the 49ers.

  • wodun

    We could also build a station to provide access to cislunar space and the lunar surface. A byproduct of this would also be providing access to Mars.

    Building this station would provide us with a measure of control and influence while opening doors to multiple destinations for our government, citizens, businesses and the same same for every country on Earth that wants to participate in a space based free market.

    Preferably the station is built and operated by private companies with the freedom of control while our government serves as an anchor tenant and purchaser of services.

  • LocalFluff

    Politically, i.e. in trump’s mind I speculate, the advantages of Mars would be its superior popularity and that Elon Musk is a model American entrepreneurial hero. The advantages of the Moon would be that it can be done sooner, cheaper and safer. A Lunar program also has some synergies with commercial space and security. Maybe most of all, it would look bad if potentially precious real estate at the Lunar poles is lost to the Chinese landing there and claiming it.

    I think that both the Chinese and Trump have a mindset that tends to a new space race. Space exploration has achieved much more with international competition than with international cooperation. Compare Sputnik and Apollo with the ISS.

    Do note that a fuel factory on the Moon is great for use on the Moon, but cannot compete in cis-Lunar space with fuel launched from Earth on reusable launchers for $2,000/kg, until there’s a really huge space development program going on. A crewed trip to Mars every conjunction is not enough to motivate the investment a Lunar fuel factory. A crewed space station in Lunar orbit would lack the radiation protection of LEO.

  • Edward

    Todd Brown and Noah Peal,
    The Moon vs Mars decision may be out of our hands and out of the government’s hands. With the fairly certain commercialization of manned space, commercial companies or private organizations can bypass government budgets and planning to go to whichever destination they choose.

    I have long thought and argued that a return to the Moon for the reasons stated is the best choice, but it is clear that SpaceX is aiming for Mars.

    ULA, on the other hand, has a vision of returning to the Moon and having 1,000 people working in space by mid century.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxftPmpt7aA (ULA’s CisLunar-1000 vision, 7 minutes)

    Here is a talk that gives more details, but I have cued it up for a proposed different way of landing on the Moon:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XCNa9pAxyM#t=1680 (whole talk is 45 minutes, followed by credits and something that looks like advertising)
    (Please notice that at the 22-minute point, he talks about an internal combustion engine for use in space. I have yet to find an explanation as to why they chose that kind of engine rather than a fuel cell. My father is flabbergasted about that choice.)

    Blue Origin, famous for its New Shepard suborbital space tourism rocket, has plans for an orbital manned rocket and a Moon rocket, respectively called New Glenn and New Armstrong. There is no reason why these and other companies cannot work toward all these ends at the same time. They can find their own funding, independent of government, and proceed with their own programs to achieve their own goals.

    I would not be surprised if ULA (or some other company) sells fuel derived from lunar polar ice to SpaceX’s Mars ships, saving SpaceX the enormous cost of lifting the fuel from the Earth.

    My expectation is that governments interested in going to another world will aim for the Moon for the reasons LocalFluff states: “it can be done sooner, cheaper and safer.” ESA is an example of a government interested in going to the Moon:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-lq2ErdlXY (9 minutes: “ESA Euronews: Building a Moon base”)

    A crewed space station in Lunar orbit would have to take along its own radiation protection. After there is a lunar base, then materials for radiation protection could come from the Moon at greatly reduced cost. I also expect that an early lunar base — manned or robotic — would be built at a pole specifically because the water there would be so useful as fuel, even if it is needed in large quantities only every two years for some Mars missions. Many other explorations, missions, and uses of the Moon can be achieved from the poles, too. It is a good starting point.

    A major advantage of commercial space over governmental space is that there is much more potential for diverse uses and destinations in space. For almost two-thirds of a century, we have been limited to what governments want to do in space, but it looks like the next third of a century, We the People will be able to choose what we want to do in space, and there are more companies with plans for space than there are governments with plans. Governments limit themselves, but corporations can afford to be bold.

    The visionaries have returned to expecting large expansions in space, just as in the 1960s they expected a large expansion for the following few decades. Today’s visions are more realistic, but that is because we have more experience in what we can do and for what price and because we no longer expect governments to be the drivers of expansions in space.

  • Vladislaw

    Sell it to the public that we are going to mars. Fund Blue Origin, SpaceX and ULA aces… and have NASA spend only on space based, reusable hardware, like NAUTILUS – X and be the anchor customer for heavy lift… NASA would only have to buy a couple launches a year each.

    I really would like to see NASA stop investing in disposable ground based systems and transition to space based, reusable hardware only.

  • John E Bowen

    Fluff,

    “Do note that a fuel factory on the Moon is great for use on the Moon, but cannot compete in cis-Lunar space with fuel launched from Earth on reusable launchers for $2,000/kg, until there’s a really huge space development program going on.”

    True, it couldn’t compete in the short to medium term. For NASA and other government agency “anchor tenants” launching to LEO and desiring to go further, I would require them to purchase fuel at so much per kilogram at the LEO fuel depot. The fuel could come from the ground, or from the lunar surface, or maybe both during some transition period. How long will it take for the lunar-derived fuel to be cheaper than up from Earth’s gravity well? I don’t know, but let the market decide.

    As for “requiring government to stop in LEO, buy fuel, then go farther,” I’d refine this to recommend a light touch. Some missions are only going as far as GEO, and it might be seriously more expensive than just using a Falcon 9 or Falcon 9 Heavy and inserting into geosynchronous transfer orbit to begin with.

    Perhaps the best candidates for the depot(s) could be missions large enough that they can’t find competitive launch prices. So gassing up at the filling station in LEO involves some expense, and involves learning some new things. So what? If this method is competitive with paying for an SLS launch, it’s a good thing.

    P.S. I think SLS will collapse under its own weight, regardless.

    Cheers

  • John E Bowen

    “A crewed space station in Lunar orbit would lack the radiation protection of LEO.”

    So what? A crewed space station in nearly any orbit in the solar system will need radiation protection. It is certainly something to plan for, but it is not a reason to stay in LEO forever. LEO is a nice first step, baby steps; it’s a little like the saying about ships in the harbor are safe, but this is not why we build ships.

  • Edward

    John E Bowen and LocalFluff,
    Do note that a fuel factory on the Moon is great for use on the Moon, but cannot compete in cis-Lunar space with fuel launched from Earth on reusable launchers for $2,000/kg, until there’s a really huge space development program going on.

    and:
    How long will it take for the lunar-derived fuel to be cheaper than up from Earth’s gravity well?

    Lunar-derived fuel will be cheaper at LEO pretty much as soon as lunar fuel manufacturing is established, especially if ULA’s Xeus rocket becomes reality, or anything remotely like it. It is significantly easier (read: “less fuel consumption and smaller rockets”) to get from the lunar surface to LEO than it is to get from the Earth’s surface to LEO. It may seem counterintuitive, considering the distances involved, but it is true.

    Here is a way to conceptualize it in your mind:
    The weight of a Gemini Spacecraft was around 8,000 pounds and the Apollo Lunar Ascent Module was about 10,000 pounds. The Gemini required a 110-foot tall Titan II first and second stage in order to reach LEO, but the 9-foot tall Ascent Stage was able to reach lunar orbit on its own ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Lunar_Module#Ascent_stage ). Getting back to Earth from lunar orbit required another burn from the Apollo service Module, but that was tiny, compared to the Titan II.

    Aerobraking can save a lot of fuel when entering LEO. Using the atmosphere to slow into LEO would mean that pretty much the only fuel needed at the Earth end of the journey would be to raise the perigee (from a location that is inside the atmosphere to a location in space) and to rendezvous with the target vehicle (i.e. space station or craft to be refueled). Reaching LEO may be less costly than reaching GEO, as less fuel would be needed to raise the perigee for LEO than for GEO.

    The lesson is that a great amount of fuel is required to carry any mass to LEO from the Earth’s surface, but not much is required to get that same mass from the Moon’s surface to LEO, or anywhere in cis-lunar space, for that matter.

    This is why lunar mining and asteroid mining are such popular ideas. A small refinery in space or on the Moon can make a lot of the materials that will be needed for manufacturing in space, and transportation costs would be relatively low.

    To reduce fuel use further, solar cells can power mass drivers to get materials and fuels from the surface of the Moon to various cis-lunar locations, but I would not expect this technology until later, as each kilometers-long mass driver may take a while to manufacture from lunar material.

    Additionally, space elevator(s) at lunar equatorial location(s) may be useful, too. I have yet to hear of anyone planning to test a lunar space elevator, but I would bet that one is tested before mid-century. Once operations and stability are worked out, space elevators should be popular.

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