June 21, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

China's Chang'e 6 lands on the far side of the Moon – Sky and Telescopes

Chang'e 6 mission landing image
This view shows the shadow of Chang'e 6 shortly before landing.

The China National Space Agency (CNSA) reached a key milestone for its Chang'e 6 mission on June 1, with a successful soft landing on the Moon, in the Apollo Crater within the largest South Pole Aitken Basin in the hidden side of the Moon. Landing occurred at 22:23 Universal Time (UT).

The distant landing

The mission launched on a Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang Space Launch Site on May 3. The ambitious mission combines two abilities demonstrated in previous agency missions: a far-side landing (Chang'e 4 in 2019) and a rapid sample return mission (Chang'e 5 in 2020). Therefore, the mission “involves many engineering innovations, high risks and great difficulties,” says Li Yi (CNSA) in a recent Press release.

The landing zone in the lunar south polar region is outlined in red on a topographic map
The Chang'e 6 landing zone is outlined in red on this topographic map.
The Planetary Society / NASA / Goddard

Yesterday China released a video of the descent of Chang'e 6 (see video below), along with a quick press release on the landing.

A first look at the landing site should be available early this week. It's a lightning mission, as Chang'e 6 is expected to collect up to 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of lunar soil using the lander's robotic arm and drill, and load it onto the ascent vehicle for launch. within 48 hours of landing. From there, the ascent vehicle will rendezvous with the sample return vehicle in low lunar orbit, for a return of the sample capsule over Inner Mongolia during the Earth flyby in late June.

Mission objectives

Samples from the far side of the Moon could help us understand the history and formation of the Moon, especially by allowing scientists to study why the far side appears different in contrast to the near side. Future missions may also seek to exploit resources (especially water ice) in the polar regions.

Chang'e 6 on the Moon, artist's illustration
Artist's conception of the lander and the lunar surface ascent vehicle.

France's national space agency (CNES) and the European Space Agency (ESA) are also using a negative ion detector and a radon detector on the mission, and Italy has a laser retroreflector deployed on the spacecraft. The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) also has a small mini-rover on the lander, which was not revealed until last month. These experiments are expected to run until the ascent vehicle lifts off, which may mean the end of surface operations.

China Queqiao 2 The orbiter (named after the magpie bridge in a Chinese folk tale) launched in March and acts as a relay for the mission.

So far, China's lunar program has been a huge success and each mission of the Chang'e program has met its objectives. However, the past year has been a mix of tragedy and triumph for lunar missions around the world: Astrobotic Peregrine falcon lander, iSpace Hakuto R. and Russia's Luna 25 failed to reach the Moon or crashed. Meanwhile, Japan SLIM and Intuitive Machines' Odysseus landers had limited success, landing askew in a way that made it difficult to generate power through their solar panels. The greatest recent success has been that of India. Chandrayaan 3which sent an orbiter, a lander and a rover in August 2023.

Stack of Chang'e 6 spacecraft in clean room
The spacecraft was stacked before launch.

China's future ambitions include Chang'e 7, a combo orbiter/lander/rover that also includes a “mini-hopper” lunar probe, scheduled to launch in 2026, as well as Chang'e 8, which will launch next year. before 2028 for testing technologies for the construction of a lunar base. Manned lunar missions are possible in the early 2030s.

Meanwhile, China successfully sent the Tianwen 1 orbiter/lander/rover combo to Mars in 2021. In the long term, it is not impossible to imagine an expanded version of CNSA's proven lunar sample return missions aimed at a sample return program. samples to Mars. In the short term, however, keep an eye out for the return of the first samples from the lunar far side, courtesy of Chang'e 6, arriving in late June.

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