Moon Monday #175: China helps Pakistan kickstart lunar exploration, and preps for crew with Chang’e 8

This week the Chinese lunar theme continues from Moon Monday #174 as we try to get a contextual understanding of the country’s lunar endeavors—information about which is otherwise usually scattered in bits and pieces.

Illustration of the Chang’e 6 spacecraft stack in lunar orbit. Image: CNSA / CGTN

New craft around Luna, including a first for Pakistan

On May 8, China’s Chang’e 6 sample return spacecraft stack successfully entered an elliptical orbit around our Moon. It was the 3,000-newton engine on the orbiter module which performed the braking burn, slowing the spacecraft stack enough to be captured by Luna’s gravity.

Shortly after, Chang’e 6 deployed Pakistan’s 7-kilogram CubeSat called ICUBE-Q in orbit, making it the country’s first mission exploring our cosmic companion. Developed by Pakistan’s Institute of Space Technology (IST) with aid from China’s Shanghai Jiaotong University, ICUBE-Q hosts two optical cameras and a magnetometer. Scientists hope the orbiter will detect potential signs of water ice on the Moon’s poles.

It was last year that Pakistan formally joined the upcoming China-led long-term scientific base on the Moon’s south pole called the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). Interestingly, CNSA’s post announcing ICUBE-Q’s orbital deployment mentions that Pakistan also wants to fly hardware onboard China’s upcoming Chang’e 8 mission (more on it below), and that Pakistan has applied to study lunar samples brought to Earth by Chang’e 5.

A close look at a Chang’e 5 lunar sample, labelled CE5C0000YJYX03501GP. Image: CNSA

To me, this development begs a question: why isn’t India applying to study Chang’e 5 samples too? Sure, India and China aren’t on friendly terms but so aren’t US and China, and yet NASA managed to secure a remarkable exception from the US Congress for the country’s researchers to be able to apply to access and study Chang’e 5 samples. Indian space science stands to benefit from studying these samples both academically as well as practically, the latter for ISRO’s not-yet-commissioned Chandrayaan 4 mission which intends to bring lunar samples later this decade. Indian science research institutions applying to study Chang’e 5 samples could naturally open windows for access to Chang’e 6 samples too.

Also see: How not to interpret Pakistan joining China’s long-term lunar exploration plans

Prepare for crew and double down with mission eight

Illustration of the Chang’e 8 lander on the Moon’s south pole. Image: CNSA

After CNSA’s upcoming Chang’e 7 mission helps scientists get a tactile sense of the true nature and accessibility of water ice deposits on the Moon’s south pole, the agency will follow it up with Chang’e 8 two years later. Launching on a Long March 5 rocket in 2028, the mission will comprise a lander, a rover, and an “operation robot” to collectively explore with 14 instruments the local geology and environment. Most crucially, with Chang’e 8, CNSA aims to test technologies most relevant to begin sending crew to the Moon starting end of decade.

As Ling Xin reported, CNSA called for domestic proposals for 9 out of 14 of the Chang’e 8 instruments in February. One such payload on the lander will melt lunar soil and transform it via 3D printing into parts that can be assembled. Another instrument will monitor and inspect this process. Chang’e 8’s ~100-kilogram “operation robot”—which will move around quickly by lunar robotic rover standards—will carry the 3D-printed parts from the lander to a working area and assemble basic structures as a demonstration of in-situ utilization of lunar resources. The robot will also fetch rock and soil samples for the lander’s spectrometers to determine their chemical composition, which will likely include water ice. CNSA might leave some samples on the Moon for future missions to retrieve them and bring to Earth.

Just like Chang’e 7, and similar to the lunar seismometers selected to fly on the NASA-funded Draper-led CLPS mission and Artemis III, Chang’e 8 will have a seismometer to help scientists better understand the lunar interior and also constrain the rate of seismic activity and amount of micrometeorite impacts on the lunar south pole, which will help safely plan long duration crewed missions to the region in the future.

What’s also notable about Chang’e 8 is that China has further increased the scope of international contributions. While Chang’e 6 and 7 each offer space for 15-20 kilograms of international instruments, China has been accepting proposals for scientific instruments, technology payloads, and even system-level contributions amassing 200 kilograms for Chang’e 8. As Andrew Jones has reported, CNSA is expected to announce selections for the same by Q3 this year.

Many thanks to Off Planet Research for sponsoring this week’s Moon Monday. If you love this community resource too, join them and support my work.

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