Chang’e-5’s lunar samples less dense than expected

Because the lunar samples retrieved by China’s Chang’e-5 probe were less dense than expected, it ended up recovering only 3.8 pounds of material rather than the targeted 4.4 pounds.

The probe had estimated the lunar rocks to have a density of 1.6 grams per cubic millimetre, based on data from past missions by other countries, said Pei Zhaoyu, the mission spokesman. Going by that figure, the probe stopped taking samples after just 12 hours, apparently assessing that the target had been reached. “However, from tests, the actual density might not be that high,” Pei told reporters.

This is not a failure, but a discovery. In order to make sure the lander did not recover too much material, weighing too much, they needed to set limits based on the expected weight of the material recovered. That these samples taken from the Mons Rümker volcano complex are lighter than expected reveals something about them. It suggests the lava here was different than lava samples taken elsewhere.

Chang’e-5 lunar orbiter heading to Sun-Earth Lagrange point

The new colonial movement: Chinese engineers have decided to extend the mission of the Chang’e-5 lunar orbiter by shifting its orbit so that it is transferred to one of the five Sun-Earth Lagrange points.

Amateur radio operators first confirmed the Chang’e-5 orbiter was still in space and heading towards the moon. Official confirmation has now been provided as to the spacecraft’s status.

Hu Hao, a chief designer of the third (sample return) phase of the Chinese lunar exploration program, told China Central Television (Chinese) Dec. 20 that the orbiter is now on an extended mission to a Sun-Earth Lagrange point. Hu said the extended mission was made possible by the accurate orbital injection by the Long March 5 launch vehicle, the same rocket which failed in July 2017 and delayed Chang’e-5 by three years. The Chang’e-5 orbiter has more than 200 kilograms of propellant remaining for further maneuvers.

While unspecified, it is believed that the Chang’e-5 orbiter will enter orbit around L1, based on the reference to planned solar observations. The orbiter is equipped with optical imagers. The team will decide on a further destination after tests and observations have been conducted, Hu said.

It makes great sense to keep the orbiter operating, and since lunar orbits tend to be unstable, going to a Lagrange point makes even more sense.

However, this decision raises an interesting point for the future. There are only five Lagrange points in the Earth-Sun system. All have great value. All also can likely sustain a limited number of satellites and spacecraft. Who coordinates their operations? What happens if China fills each with its spacecraft? For example, the James Webb Space Telescope is aiming for Lagrange point #2, a million miles from Earth in the Earth’s shadow. While Chang’e-5 is presently heading to a different point, what happens if China changes its mind and puts Chang’e-5 in Webb’s way?

As far as I know, there has been no discussion of this issue in international circles.

Samples from space!

Scientists from both the Japanese Hayabusa-2 mission to the asteroid Ryugu and the Chinese Chang’e-5 mission to the Moon announced yesterday the total amount of material they successfully recovered.

The numbers appear to diminish the Japanese success, but that is a mistake. Getting anything back from a rubble-pile asteroid that had never been touched before and is much farther away from Earth than the Moon was a very great achievement. The 5.4 grams is also more than fifty times the minimum amount they had hoped for.

This is also not to diminish the Chinese achievement, They not only returned almost four pounds, some of that material also came from a core sample. They thus got material both from the surface and the interior of the Moon, no small feat from an unmanned robot craft.

Scientists from both nations will now begin studying their samples. Both have said that some samples will be made available to scientists from other countries, though in the case of China it will be tricky for any American scientist to partner with China in this research, since it is by federal law illegal for them to do so.

Chang’e-5 sample return capsule successfully recovered in China

The new colonial movement: The sample return capsule for China’s Chang’e-5 mission, the first to bring lunar samples back to Earth since 1976, has been successfully recovered in the inner Mongolia region of China today.

Chinese officials confirmed the roughly 660-pound (300-kilogram) capsule landed at 12:59 p.m. EST (1759 GMT) Wednesday, or 1:59 a.m. Thursday in Beijing.

Recovery crews dispatched to the remote landing zone converged on the capsule in helicopters and off-road vehicles, traveling across the snow-covered plains of Inner Mongolia in the middle of the night. Ground teams reached the Chang’e 5 return module within minutes to begin operations to secure the capsule, and planted a Chinese flag in the frozen soil next the spacecraft.

Crews plan to transport the module to Beijing, where scientists will open the sample carrier and begin analyzing the moon rocks.

For China this success is a major milestone for its government-run space program. They have demonstrated superb technical capabilities that will serve them on many more future missions. They have also signaled to the world and the U.S. that they mean business in space, and that their published plans to build colonies on the Moon are serious. They have also made it clear that they will enforce control over any territory they occupy, notwithstanding the rules of the Outer Space Treaty. Any American government that makes light of these facts and refuses to aggressively compete with China is going to quickly discover it shut out of the most valuable locations on the Moon.

Chang’e-5 on its way back to Earth

The new colonial movement: Chang’e-5 today successfully fired four engines for 22 minutes to leave lunar orbit and begin its journey back to Earth, with a planned arrival date in China for its sample return capsule around December 15/16th.

The return capsule is expected to land in northern China in the Inner Mongolia region after separating from the rest of the spacecraft and floating down on parachutes. The material would be the first brought back since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 probe in 1976.

The rocks and other debris were obtained both by drilling into the moon’s crust and scooping directly off the surface. They may be billions of years younger than those brought back by earlier U.S. and Soviet missions, possibly offering insights into the moon’s history and that of other bodies in the solar system.

The landing sequence is the last major engineering challenge, though hardly as challenging as the autonomous rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit.

Chang’e-5 ascender sent to crash on Moon

The new colonial movement: Even as the Chang’e-5 orbiter/return capsule awaits its window for leaving lunar orbit, Chinese engineers have separated the ascender capsule that brought the samples from the surface and sent it to crash on the Moon.

This decision makes sense, as lunar orbits tend to be unstable, and to leave the ascender there after the orbiter and return capsule leave could make it a piece of uncontrollable space junk threatening future missions.

The engine burn that will send the orbiter/return capsule back to Earth is expected early December 12th, with the return capsule landing in China on December 16th.

Chang’e-5 sample capsule docks with return vehicle in lunar orbit

According to the official Chinese state-run press Chang’e-5’s capsule containing samples from the Moon has successfully rendezvoused and docked with its return vehicle in lunar orbit, the first time an unmanned craft has done such a thing autonomously.

The news report at this point provides no other details, other than to state that the return capsule and orbiter will next separate from the ascent capsule and “wait for the right time to return to Earth.” Earlier reports had suggested an arrival on Earth around December 16, which would suggest an exit from lunar orbit in about a week.

LRO snaps picture of Chang’e-5 on Moon

Chang'e-5 on the Moon, taken by LRO
Click for full image.

The science team for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) late yesterday released an image taken of Chang’e-5 on the surface of the Moon. The image to the right, reduced to post here, is that photo.

China’s Chang’e 5 sample return spacecraft made a safe touchdown on the lunar surface at 10:11 EST (15:11 UTC) 01 December 2020. LRO passed over the site the following day and acquired an off-nadir (13° slew) image showing the lander centered within a triangle of craters.

The LROC team computed the coordinates of the lander to be 43.0576° N, 308.0839°E, –2570 m elevation, with an estimated accuracy of plus-or-minus 20 meters.

If all goes well, the return capsule, which lifted off from the Moon yesterday, will dock with the return vehicle in orbiter later today.

Chang’e-5 completes sample collection; lifts off from Moon

UPDATE: The official state-run Chinese press has announced that the ascent capsule with the lunar samples has lifted off from the Moon. The rendezvous and docking is next, which is likely the most difficult technical task for the autonomous unmanned probe. No word yet on when that will occur.

Original post:
——————

The new colonial movement: China’s Chang’e-5 lunar lander has completed its sample collection on the Moon, and is set to lift-off sometime today for a rendezvous and docking with its return vehicle in lunar orbit.

The milestone signaled the start of the mission’s return voyage, which includes an ambitious series of automated maneuvers to blast off from the lunar surface Thursday and rendezvous with an orbiter circling the moon. Chang’e 5 will attempt the first-ever docking between two robotic spacecraft in lunar orbit, then transfer the moon rock container into the return craft.

If all goes according to plan, Chang’e 5’s sample container should re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and parachute to a landing in China’s Inner Mongolia region around Dec. 16.

If successful, this will the ninth spacecraft to bring samples back from the Moon, and the first since the 1970s. It will also firmly establish China as a major space power that is presently competitive to the U.S. and has also bypassed Russia completely. Even though it is likely they stole much of the technology for doing such planetary missions, China’s engineers have done a good job of refining and improving the engineering, as shown by the number of firsts being achieved by this Chang’e-5 mission.

First images from Chang’e-5 on the Moon

Panorama of Chang'e-5 landing site
Click for full image.

The new colonial movement: China’s state-run press has now released several images taken by Chang’e-5 on the lunar surface, including movies showing the landing and the ongoing digging operations.

The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is part of a fisheye panorama of the entire landing site. I have cropped it to show only the central part. Except for the distant mountain, the terrain is very flat, which is not surprising as this is the Ocean of Storms mare.

Note however how deep the landing pad is pressed into the ground. This gives a sense of the dust layer that covers the surface.

The link above, as well as this link, show additional images as well as the two movies.

Take off is next, followed by the autonomous rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit with the craft that will bring the sample capsule back to Earth sometime around December 16.

Change’-5 successfully gets sample from drilling

The new colonial movement: According to the state-run Chinese press, Chang’e-5 has successfully obtained its first lunar sample from a 2-meter deep drilled hole.

After making a successful soft landing at 11:00 p.m. BJT on Tuesday, the lander started rolling out its solar panel wings and unlocking some of the payloads onboard to prepare for sample collection.

The lander first drilled a 2-meter-deep hole, digging out soil, and sealed it up at 4:53 a.m. on Wednesday [today]. Next, it will use its robotic arms to scoop up more samples from the lunar surface for backup.

If all goes right, they will collect a second sample from the surface using a scoop, and then the ascent capsule will take off tomorrow. It will then rendezvous and dock with the orbiter and return capsule.

LRO looks at Yutu-2

Yutu-2's travels on the Moon through October 2020
Click for full image.

The new colonial movement: The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team today released an update of the travels of China’s Yutu-2 lunar rover, presently operating on the far side of the Moon.

The photo to the right, reduced and annotated to post here, shows the rover’s present position, having traveled about 1,650 feet to the northwest in the 22 months since landing. The goal, according to Yutu-2’s science team, is to get the rover beyond the present ejecta field of debris thrown from a large impact to the north, and reach a basalt covered region about a mile away. At the pace they are setting, about 100 feet per lunar day, it is going to take them about another three years to get there. Whether the rover will last that long is the question, but I suspect they are hopeful, based on the almost two years of operations so far.

If you go to the link you can also see a short movie showing month-by-month where the rover ended up when it shut down for each long lunar night.

Chang’e-5 lands on Moon

The new colonial movement: According to official Chinese reports, Chang’e-5 has successfully soft-landed on the Moon in preparation for its gathering of samples to bring back to Earth.

The Chang’e 5 lander began final descent at 09:58 EST (14:58 UTC) with an expected touchdown 15 minutes later at 10:13 EST (15:13 UTC).

All broadcasts of the event were abruptly stopped just before the landing burn was to begin — throwing the mission into question with CCTV in China at first saying landing coverage would resume at 21:00 EST — an 11 hour delay to the landing. Minutes later, official sources — via social media — proclaimed a successful landing.

Blocking a broadcast like this is very typical of totalitarian governments, and totalitarian societies. Think about that the next time Youtube or Google or Facebook or Twitter or an American university silences speech they don’t like.

As for the lander, all other news reports that I have so far found provide no further details. It appears that all we know comes from a single sentence announcement of success from the Chinese press.

Chang’e-5 now in lunar orbit

The new colonial movement: China’s lunar sample return probe Chang’e-5 has now entered in lunar orbit, with its landing to occur in three days.

Over the next week, the probe, composed of four parts – the orbiter, lander, ascender and Earth re-entry module – will perform multiple complicated tasks on a tight schedule.

The four parts will separate into two pairs. The lander and ascender will head to the moon and collect samples, while the orbiter and Earth re-entry module will continue to fly around the moon and adjust to a designated orbit, getting ready for the docking with the ascender.

The landing operation is expected in three days. Once touched down on the lunar surface, the lander will collect two kilograms of lunar sample.

The plan once on the surface is to gather a sample from the surface as well as from a six-foot deep core sample.

China successfully launches its Chang’e-5 lunar sample mission

screen capture at Long March 5 launch of Chang'e-5
Screen capture from launch live feed

The new colonial movement: China today successfully used its Long March 5 rocket to launch its Chang’e-5 on the first lunar sample return mission since the 1970s.

If all goes well, the return capsule will return to Earth with its sample on December 15th.

China provided a live stream, in English, which I have embedded below the fold.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

31 China
21 SpaceX
12 Russia
5 ULA
5 Rocket Lab

The U.S. still leads China 34 to 31 in the national rankings.
» Read more

Long March 5 moves to launchpad for Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission

The new colonial movement: China has transported its biggest rocket, the Long March 5, from its hanger to its launchpad in preparation for the scheduled November 24th launch of Chang’e-5, planned to be the first lunar sample return mission since the 1970s..

The linked article above, from the Associated Press but published at ABC news, appears to have been tweaked by China’s propaganda department. Consider for example this quote of the article’s last paragraph:

[China’s] space program has progressed cautiously, with relatively few setbacks in recent years. The Long March-5, nicknamed “Fat 5” because of its bulky shape, failed on a previous launch attempt, but China’s enormous pool of technical and engineering talent appears to have allowed it to overcome most obstacles. [emphasis mine]

My heart be still. China has an “enormous pool of talent”. How amazing! It is a interesting the AP and ABC didn’t also note China’s enormous pool of computer hackers, who hacked into the JPL database over a period of ten years and stole its U.S. designs for rovers and unmanned probes, which were then used as a template for all their own planetary missions.

Be warned. China has many allies within the U.S., many in academia and in the press. These Americans have no loyalty to this country, and in fact if asked might actually express a greater support for China.

Overview of China’s lunar sample return mission

Chang'e-5 landing site on Moon

Link here. The Chinese mission, the first to bring back lunar samples since the 1970s, is now set for launch on November 24, 2020.

Chang’e-5 includes a lander, ascender, orbiter and returner. After the spacecraft enters the Moon’s orbit, the lander-and-ascender pair will split off and descend close to Mons Rümker, a 1,300-metre-high volcanic complex in the northern region of Oceanus Procellarum — the vast, dark lava plains visible from Earth. Once the craft has touched down, it will drill up to 2 metres into the ground and extend a robotic arm to scoop up about 2 kilograms of surface material. The material will be stored in the ascender for lift-off.

The descent and ascent will take place over one lunar day, which is equivalent to around 14 Earth days, to avoid the extreme overnight temperatures that could damage electronics, says Clive Neal, a geoscientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

…Once the ascender is back in lunar orbit, the samples will be transferred to the returner. This in-flight rendezvous will be complex and “a good rehearsal for future human exploration”, says James Carpenter, a research coordinator for human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. China plans to send people to the Moon from around 2030.

The Chang’e-5 spacecraft will then journey back to Earth, with the lander parachuting toward Siziwang Banner in Inner Mongolia, northern China, probably sometime in early December.

The location, as shown in the image above, is in the northern mid-latitudes of the Moon’s nearside, and is a place where some relatively recent volcanic activity might have occurred, though still in the far past.

More delays for China’s Long March 5

Chinese officials have now admitted that the next launch of China’s biggest but troubled rocket, the Long March 5, will not occur until December 2019 at the earliest.

Moreover, the first launch of Long March 5B, the new version of the rocket developed following the Long March 5 failure on its second launch in 2017, won’t happen until 2020. This is the version they plan to use to launch their space station modules, and these delays probably thus delay start of the in-orbit assembly of their space station by two years, to 2022.

These rocket delays also threaten the launch of China’s Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission and their first Mars orbiting mission, which has a firm summer 2020 launch window which if missed will delay the mission’s launch for two years.

These reports also for the first time officially explain the engine trouble that caused the Long March failure on its second launch in July 2017.

Addressing the causes of the failure has required a lengthy process of redesign and testing of the YF-77 liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen propellant engines. Two YF-77 engines power the rocket’s first stage, with an oxidizer turbopump isolated as the fault behind the 2017 launch failure.

The Space News article very strangely headlines the completion of the core module for China’s space station, when the real story here is the continuing delays in getting Long March 5 off the ground. Without that rocket none of China’s big space plans can proceed. Yet the article buries this scoop many paragraphs down. I wonder why.

More delays for Long March 5?

It appears that there might be more delays in the next launch of China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5, which in turn will cause delays to the Moon, Mars, and space station projects.

The Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket is China’s most powerful launch vehicle and was designed to launch large spacecraft to geosynchronous orbits and planetary bodies. It was being prepared for a third flight in July, Yang Baohua, vice president of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), China’s main space contractor and developer of the Long March 5, announced in a Jan. 29 news conference in Beijing.

The mission would come two years after the failure of the second launch. However that schedule appears to have slipped as the launch vehicle has yet to be delivered to the launch site, with knock-on effects possible for China’s major space plans. [emphasis mine]

The Chinese have said nothing to explain the situation.

Without this rocket they cannot launch their next lunar mission, Chang’e-5 sample return mission, their next Mars mission, set for the launch window 2020, and their space station, set for construction beginning in 2021.

China reveals landing site for Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission

The new colonial movement: In a recent paper Chinese scientists revealed their landing plans for the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission, presently scheduled for at 2019 launch.

If all goes according to plan, the robotic Chang’e 5 will land in the Rümker region, which lies within a huge basaltic lunar plain called Oceanus Procellarum (Latin for “Ocean of Storms”).

A recent paper lays out the scientific significance of this site, and what Chang’e 5 may be able to find there. “Recent studies find that the geological features and volcanic history of the moon are far more complex than previously thought, and many of the most interesting areas have been neither explored nor sampled,” states the study, which was led by Yuqi Qian of the School of Earth Sciences at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan. “One such area is the northern Oceanus Procellarum region, which consists of very young (<2 Ga) [less than 2 billion years old] mare materials and hosts one of the largest volcanic complexes on the moon (Mons Rümker)."
For the study, the research team conducted a detailed geological mapping of the Rümker region using imagery, spectral and altimetry data.

Chang’e-5 should not be confused with Chang’e-4, which is set to launch in the fall to land on the Moon’s far side.

The choice of the volcanic region around the Ocean of Storms is significant, as it indicates that, for at least this mission, China is not focused on the possibly more valuable polar regions where water-ice might be present for future lunar bases. Instead, they are giving a priority to science and geology with this probe. They likely also picked this site because it is near the equator and therefore a bit easier to reach on this first daring sample return mission.

It does appear however that China is taking the long view. The landing choice here suggests to me that they plan many more missions to the Moon, and do not see anyone else in a position to compete with them for territory. The U.S., Russia, and Europe appear to be throwing their eggs into the basket of (F)LOP-G, which will merely orbit the Moon and eat up resources preventing these countries from planning and building any landing missions, for decades. India meanwhile might be a competitor, but at the moment it is far behind.

China reveals landing site for Chang’e-5 lander/rover

China has chosen the landing site for its Chang’e-5 lander/rover and sample return mission, planned to launch later this year.

Liu Jizhong, director of China Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of China National Space Administration (CNSA), for the first time disclosed the probe landing site, an isolated volcanic formation located in the northwest part of the Moon’s near side.

They also said their focus will be the Moon’s south pole, where there is evidence of the possible presence of water ice.

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.

The Earth/Moon double planet, as seen by China’s Chang’e 5 probe

Earth/Moon as seen by Chang'e 5

China’s Chang’e 5 probe has taken a spectacular image of the Moon and Earth as it whips around the Moon on its circumlunar test flight.

Though China has released little additional information about the status of the mission, this image demonstrates that the vehicle is functioning well, sending back data, and that they are controlling its operation precisely and exactly as planned. The spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth on November 1.

Meanwhile, China’s second lunar probe, Chang’e 2, now in solar orbit about 60 million miles from Earth, continues to operate four years after launch

China outlines the plans for its next two unmanned lunar probes, with the second targeted as a 2017 sample return mission.

China outlines its plans for its next two unmanned lunar probes, with the second targeted as a 2017 sample return mission.

Key quote:

The new mission planned for 2017 would mark the third and final phase of China’s robotic lunar exploration program and pave the way for possibly landing an astronaut on the moon after 2020.

As I mentioned last night, the soft landing on Saturday demonstrated they are developing the technology to land a manned vehicle safely on the Moon. To return samples safely would demonstrate they are developing the technology to return that manned vehicle safely as well.

Update: Yutu did not land anywhere near its planned landing location.

China had originally publicized a location in the Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows) — a level area thoroughly surveyed by a previous Chinese mission — as the landing spot. Local media even stated that Chang’e 3 landed there. But Chinese scientists have since confirmed that the spacecraft landed slightly to the east, in the northern part of Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains).

It is unclear whether this was a late change or the result of a technical problem.