Moon Monday #176: The anatomy of China’s first crewed lunar landing, CLPS updates, and more

Welcome to the third Chinese lunar special after Moon Monday #174 and Moon Monday #175. In this edition, the top story focuses on contextualizing all that comprises China’s first crewed Moon landing mission.

CGI concept of China’s first crewed Moon landing mission. Image: PhilLeafSpace

It’s incredible how China has made systematic strides with their Moon missions. The successful lunar orbiters Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2 led to the Moon landing of Chang’e 3 in 2013, which in turn led to the farside lunar landing of Chang’e 4 later in the decade. CNSA once again upped engineering complexity by bringing lunar samples to Earth with Chang’e 5 in 2020, and hopes to do it again with the ongoing Chang’e 6 mission of collecting the first ever samples from the Moon’s enigmatically distinct farside.

CNSA is already preparing for a 2026 launch of Chang’e 7, which should provide scientists with a tactile sense of the true nature and accessibility of water ice deposits on the Moon’s south pole. Two years later, China hopes to demonstrate technologies like building 3D-printed bricks out of lunar soil as part of Chang’e 8. Combined, these two missions will allow China to continue charting a clear path that leads to putting humans on the Moon by end of decade—work on which also seems to be progressing well. At a recent press conference, leading officials from the China Manned Space Engineering Office said that elements of China’s first crewed lunar landing mission have progressed into prototype production and test stages.

While not yet announced, owing to the mission’s complexity, it can be expected that China will conduct at least one uncrewed lunar landing and a crewed lunar orbital flight before attempting to land humans on Luna. It will be interesting to see if China maintains the Chang’e naming scheme for crewed or crew-linked Moon missions or calls them something else entirely.

China’s Long March 2F rocket flying with astronauts, with a lunar backdrop. Image: Xinhua

Recall that China’s crewed Moon landing plan involves building a giant new rocket called Long March 10, which will take off from a new launchpad in Wenchang. The Long March 10 will be capable of sending 27,000 kilograms of payload on a trajectory to Luna, matching the performance of NASA’s current SLS rocket and more than tripling China’s ability to send things to the Moon compared to their current best Long March 5 rocket—from which the 10 is derived. Andrew Jones reported in May 2023 that China begun using a new advanced facility in Tongchuan dedicated to test firing huge rocket engines, including the ones being prototyped and built for the Long March 10.

For the crewed landing mission end of decade, a Long March 10 rocket will launch a ~26,000-kilogram spacecraft named Mengzhou Y, which will carry three to four astronauts to lunar orbit. There it would dock with the similarly massive Lanyue lunar lander—itself launched on another Long March 10. After the docking, two astronauts will transfer to the lander for a lunar touchdown, and return to orbit after exploring the Moon for at least six hours, and possibly a few days.

In July 2023, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) solicited science payload proposals for the mission’s lander. Similar to the instruments NASA will deploy on Artemis III, CMSA wants these payloads to focus on lunar geology, physics, life sciences, and solar and astronomical observations. Unlike Artemis III though, CMSA is open to in-situ resource utilization demos being proposed as well!

I’d like to express thanks and give a shoutout to Andrew Jones for his excellent reporting on China’s space program. It’s his years-long coverage of China’s evolving crewed landing plans that allowed me to put together many major—and minor!—chunks of this overview.

Not a limited mission scope

While China’s first crewed mission may be of a short duration, do not consider it too limited and Apollo-like against the expansive ambitions of Artemis, as was recently implied by Ars Technica and Payload Space. Other than the long-term ILRS Moonbase plans, the hardware elements themselves leave room for better missions. For one, China is designing the spacesuits such that astronauts should be able to explore the lunar surface for at least eight hours at a time, which implies an expansive next set of missions. Furthermore, CMSA solicited industry proposals for the first landing mission’s rover in May 2023, which the crew can drive up to 10 kilometers from the landed site. That’s more than the range of the rover driven by Apollo astronauts but does fall short of the 20-kilometer peak of the upcoming Artemis Lunar Terrain Vehicle. 10 kilometers is nevertheless a decent range for long duration missions.

China’s delays will likely be technical in nature

While China’s goal for a crewed Moon landing doesn’t face significant internal political blockages, like those the US needs to deal with to push the Artemis program forward, technical delays are always possible. In fact, it’s the engineering failures that have primarily slowed down China’s lunar ambitions.

Recall that a failure of the Long March 5 rocket delayed Chang’e 5 by three years. Likewise, the Long March 10 is an even more complex launch vehicle which could take time getting to an operational flight safe enough for humans to fly on. Chang’e 6 got delayed by two years despite having the same broad design as Chang’e 5. Why? Its communications relay satellite Queqiao 2 needed a rethink—but which now is the beginning of a more ambitious communications constellation around the Moon. Likewise, China’s crewed landing system might face realization complexities that induce delays.

Either way, it’ll be good to have a second nation from Earth land humans on Luna.

Many thanks to The Orbital Index, Narayan Prasad and Gurbir Singh for sponsoring this week’s Moon Monday. If you love this community resource too, join them!

Mission updates

Engineers test the VIPER rover’s wheel movement and rotation in a clean room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Image: NASA / Helen Arase Vargas
  • Jeff Foust reports that for Intuitive Machines’ second Moon landing mission targeting launch end of year as part of NASA’s CLPS program, the company is refining several systems on its Nova-C lander with the hope of bagging full success this time around instead of the partial one with their first CLPS mission IM-1—which NASA and Intuitive disappointingly skewed the success criteria of.
  • NASA’s upcoming VIPER CLPS rover designed to study water ice on the Moon’s south pole seems to have gotten its four wheels and completed its assembly as the mission team is now preparing to send the vehicle for the standard series of environmental tests designed to ensure VIPER can withstand the harsh conditions of launch, in space, and at the Moon. VIPER intends to explore areas in and around permanently shadowed regions for over four months to unravel the nature, abundance, and accessibility of lunar water ice deposits to help NASA plan crewed Artemis missions. While VIPER was nominally being planned for a November 2024 launch onboard Astrobotic’s Griffin lander, the company’s failed first Moon mission in January might induce delays and likely also more tests and associated costs/funds.
  • ispace Europe announced that the upcoming Draper-led CLPS mission—wherein ispace’s US subsidiary is providing the APEX lander to touchdown on the Moon’s farside—will carry a location-measuring payload from Romania-based Control Data Systems. A rover will deploy it on the lunar surface to test the precision of localization measurements via pings from the lander.
  • Also see: ispace doubles down on farside Moon mission

More Moon

The Artemis I Orion spacecraft lost big chunks of its heat shield material in several places, and some of its separation bolts melted and eroded. Image: NASA / OIG
  • Marcia Smith reports that NASA is getting an independent review of the concerning damage incurred by the Orion spacecraft’s heat shield during Artemis I’s flight in 2022 to better understand why it didn’t work as designed. Earlier this month, a public report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) revealed to the US taxpayers that the heat shield had taken a deeper beating than the agency let on a few months after the mission, then deeming it to be a non-blocker for the upcoming crew-carrying Artemis II launch in late 2025. Understanding the issue is a primary blocker for Artemis II because there’s no other way to test the shield at a relevant scale. Recall that NASA already installed the Artemis II Orion’s heat shield in June 2023.
  • On May 15, Lithuania became the 40th nation worldwide and the 18th in Europe to sign the US-led Artemis Accords for cooperative lunar exploration.
  • To maximize scientific gains from lunar samples brought to Earth by Artemis astronauts, the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG)—which helps the agency with scientific, technical, commercial, and operational analysis to form and meet its lunar exploration objectives—is seeking input from the lunar community at large via a 15-minute survey. It seems like the survey is open to scientists outside the US, which is great. Inputs from this survey are expected to directly aid the 12-person Artemis III Geology Team, which will not only provide sampling strategies for water ice and special lunar materials of interest but also be involved in initial studies of returned samples.
  • There’s now a subreddit for Moon Monday! Join the community: 🚀🌙

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