¶Chinese Moon ambitions become clearer. Over the past few months, China’s lunar plans, both more material and close at hand, as well as further reaching and aspirational, have trickled in. Starting with three more Chang’e missions and finishing with a permanent lunar base and a Starship-esque crew-rated Super Heavy Lift vehicle, let’s dive into a round-up on the latest:
- Chang’e-6. Launching in 2026, this vehicle was developed as a backup for the Chang’e-5 sample return mission and has similar operational parameters. It will collect up to 2 kg of regolith from the far side of the Moon, targeting a southern hemisphere landing location in the Aitken Basin.
- Preceding Chang’e-6, a second Lunar Relay Satellite mission will launch in ~2024 to improve cislunar and surface mission communications, especially those to the south pole.
- Chang’e-7. Also launching in 2026, this mission will include an orbiter, a lander, an autonomous rover, and a “mini flying/hopping detector.” The hopper is planned to venture into craters (possibly even permanently shadowed ones). Chang’e-7’s landing area overlaps the Artemis landing region, which has a slight possibility of creating an international relations friction point.
- Chang’e-8. The last of the currently authorized Chang’e missions is proposed for launch in 2028 (video). It is intended to demonstrate ISRU (3D printing using lunar regolith, and presumably lunar ice conversion to hydrogen and oxygen as well). This mission will also establish a location and the first infrastructure for the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).
- ILRS. The (initially autonomous) moon base was first announced as a joint project with Russia. More recent information has downplayed or completely omitted Russian involvement (natch). Five core missions are envisioned to build out the station by 2035, with the first penciled in for 2030. China is touting this as an international research megaproject and appears in hope of multiple partners.
- Next Generation Crew Vehicle, New Crew Capsule, and Moon Landing. The country’s first short-duration crewed lunar landing mission is planned for a touchdown by 2030. The launch vehicle for this and other “near-term” lunar missions is the in-development rocket known as the CZ-5DY (dengyue, meaning moon landing), CZ-5G, or the ‘921 Rocket’. Despite the similar name, this rocket isn’t related in any particular way to the current CZ-5/5B and instead features a Falcon Heavy-like 3 booster design… and may end up being caught with a tether to address reusability goals. Two launches of this rocket would support a Moon landing, each capable of a 27-ton payload to trans-lunar injection. The next-generation crew capsule to support these missions has already undergone its first flight test atop a CZ-5B in 2020. And, a lander is also under development.
- Long March-9. Planned to eventually replace the near-term vehicles mentioned above, the Super Heavy Lift CZ-9 has undergone yet another redesign, this time becoming exceptionally Starship-esque. It now won’t fly until (a projected) 2035, but when it does it will feature a large 10-meter diameter single booster, high engine count, full-flow staged combustion methalox engines, grid fins, and a 50-launch reusability target from day one.
| The envisioned ILRS. Credit: CNSA|
The Orbital Index is made possible through generous sponsorship by:
¶ESA’s Ministerial Council. ESA’s 22 member states approved a €16.9B budget for the agency over the next 3 years. Ignoring inflation, this is a 17% increase over 2019. Approved were things like continued Artemis and Gateway involvement and work on a new delivery pathway and probable NASA partnership for ExoMars. Development was also approved for the 8-ton European Large Logistics Lander to support crewed missions past 2030 and for the Moonlight program, a constellation of lunar communication and navigation satellites. Related: Beyond Moonlight, at least three startups are getting involved with the lunar comms space: Aquarian Space plans for a first lunar comms satellite in 2024, while Spanish-German Plus Ultra (in collaboration with ispace Japan) and ArkEdge Space are also both working on cislunar comms sats.
¶Lunar Trailblazer. Since we’re all about the Moon right now, let’s talk about NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer, which is heading to the Moon mid-next-year. The craft’s infrared spectrometer and other sensors will allow it to measure the form (ice or water-infused minerals) and distribution of lunar water from a lunar polar orbit. Measurements over time should also start to determine the relative contributions to the Moon’s water from different theorized sources, such as ancient volcanoes, comets and asteroids, micrometeorites, the solar wind, and/or the Earth’s diffuse atmosphere at lunar distance. Here’s an interactive map of many of the craft’s most promising observation targets.
| A map of water and hydroxyl (in blue and violet) across the surface of the moon, from the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3). Credit: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Brown Univ./USGS|
| ¶News in brief. SpaceX is troubleshooting the Falcon 9 which was supposed to launch ispace’s Moon mission this week ● The crew of Shenzhou 14—astronauts Chen Dong, Liu Yang, and Cai Xuzhe—are back from Tiangong ● Space tracking and situational awareness startup Slingshot Aerospace raised $40M ● Orion has started its journey home—it should splash down on December 11 off the California coast near San Diego—the capsule will skip off the Earth’s atmosphere (arguably a first true skip for a human-rated craft) to bleed off some of its 10.9 km/s before reentering at a leasurely 7.5 km/s ● France joined the growing international commitment to prohibit direct-ascent ASAT tests ● The FCC approved an initial round of 7,500 massive Starlink Gen 2 satellites—this doesn’t seem to change the number of total approved Starlink sats at ~11,900, and they did not yet approve SpaceX’s request for 30,000 ● Lockheed will build three more GPS IIIF sats to the tune of $744M in total ● NASA canceled the upcoming GeoCarb observation payload due to cost overruns ($600M on a $166M budget… 🙄) and lack of a timely GEO hosted payload option—a new greenhouse gas observation mission will be prioritized, and the agency is also buying data from startup GHGSat ● SpaceX performed Super Heavy’s longest-duration multi-engine test yet (11 engines firing for 12 seconds) with a full tank of liquid oxygen to test autogenous pressurization—this is supposedly one of the last tests before an orbital launch attempt (no word on whether the elusive 33-Raptor static fire will happen or not).|
| A slide from October’s update to the NASA Advisory Committee on the progress of the Starship-based HLS. Credit: NASA|
- Today is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17, the final flight of the Apollo program and the last time humans walked on the Moon. In commemoration, NASA released a… PowerPoint presentation.
- Starshield is SpaceX’s aggressive entry into the US Military’s communications, Earth observation, and satellite building market. It is built on top of Starlink technology, but seemingly will be all-new flight hardware.
- Before the program’s end, NASA’s flying observatory SOFIA undertook infrared observations of Venus and found no evidence of phosphine. If there is phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere, as suggested by the now quite controversial 2020 study, the threshold is now below 0.8 parts per billion (although the original study authors disagree).
- How all those colorful JWST images are synthesized.
- Tiangong’s Wentian and Mengtian modules include an “indexing” or redocking arm to conduct autonomous relocation of modules on the station. It clearly has roots in the Lyappa arm from the Mir station. Here’s a gif of the redocking maneuver.
- Researchers discovered two new minerals (and possibly one more) in a meteorite found in Somalia. One of the new minerals is named Elkinstantonite, after NASA’s Psyche PI Lindy Elkins-Stanton.
- If you’re feeling particularly cantankerous or pessimistic, you can create your own asteroid and launch it toward Earth. 🌎☄️
| Orion’s view from the far side as it slingshots around the Moon and begins its return trip to Earth, visible as a distant crescent.|