Moon Monday #178: The fourth Chinese lunar landing, dearMoon, mission updates, and more

I’m over the Moon to share that Open Lunar Foundation is continuing to be a sponsor of my Moon Monday blog+newsletter for the fourth year in a row! 🌗

Open Lunar is a non-profit organization that brings together and enables a diverse set of experts to develop key technical and policy building blocks which help ensure that the global exploration of our Moon is peaceful, cooperative, and sustainable. 🚀

It’s a mission I like so much—alongside the people—that I’m glad to also share that I’ve been aiding Open Lunar’s work in a small way as part of a group of Affiliates who believe in the cause. 🌙

China lands one more time on the Moon’s farside

A fantastic view from a camera onboard the Chang’e 6 lander which shows the spacecraft’s shadow on the Moon and dust blowoff just moments before touchdown. Image: CNSA / CLEP

Following a 14-minute descent from an altitude of ~15 kilometers in its lunar orbit, China’s Chang’e 6 lander successfully touched down on the Moon’s farside on June 1, resting at 153.99° W, 41.64° S near the southern rim of the 500-kilometer wide Apollo impact crater. This marks China’s fourth successful nominal landing in four tries. It’s also only the second farside lunar touchdown after Chang’e 4. At this point, China is making lunar landings seem easy while other countries work towards achieving the complex task as a routine.

Much like most modern lunar landers, Chang’e 6 used several key technologies to descend onto a safe spot: a variable thrust engine, optical imagery, onboard maps, hover phases to detect hazards to avoid, and shock-absorbing crush core legs for the final free fall. Chang’e 6 also used a laser-based LiDAR sensor to map the local landing area in 3D before the final landing phase. Interestingly, CNSA’s news release also mentions landing aid from another sensor:

To prevent interference to optical sensors by lunar dust during landing, the lander is also equipped with gamma-ray sensors to accurately measure the height through particle rays, ensuring that the engine can be shut down on time and the lander can touch down smoothly on the lunar surface.

A sped-up interpolated video showing the view from Chang’e 6 during its lunar descent and landing. Video: CNSA

The Chang’e 6 landing site [153.99° W, 41.64° S]—blue dot—in the 3.98-billion-year old, 500-kilometer wide Apollo impact crater. Image: LROC Quickmap / ASU / GSFC

Since Chang’e 6’s surface mission of sample collection is on the Moon’s farside, the side we can’t see from Earth, mission operators have been commanding the lander and receiving data from it via relays from the Queqiao 2 lunar orbiter launched earlier in February. However, China frustratingly continues to not share even high-level information about its space activities in near-real-time with the public. At the time of writing this, it’s hard to know if and how exactly the Chang’e 6 lander collected its samples, and what they look like. We don’t have any images from the surface despite it being two days since the landing.

More mission updates

JPL engineers and technicians prepare NASA’s Farside Seismic Suite for testing in simulated lunar gravity, which is about one-sixth of Earth’s. Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Many thanks to Open Lunar Foundation and Sanket Suman Dash for sponsoring this week’s Moon Monday. If you love this curated community resource too, join them and support my work.

Is dearMoon’s cancellation purely a financial setback?

Illustration of the dearMoon Starship above Luna. Image: SpaceX / dearMoon

Citing delays and uncertainty in the launch year, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has cancelled his purchase of SpaceX’s dearMoon Starship mission, which aimed to fly himself and eight more people around the Moon and back. Would-be-mission flyers expressed disappointment with the poor internal communications regarding the cancellation, including the Everyday Astronaut, Rhiannon Adam and Brendan Hall.

While it’s not surprising that dearMoon would’ve never launched in 2023—or even 2024—and that Maezawa’s net worth dropping by half since booking the mission in 2018 certainly played a role in the decision, I disagree with most of the coverage calling the mission a low priority—that it would be a distraction from SpaceX’s development for the Artemis III Lunar Starship mission to land humans on the Moon for NASA. Sans the critical landing element, Artemis III and dearMoon share virtually every developmental milestone Starship needs to hit for safely and successfully carrying humans to the Moon and back—from in-orbit refueling to a high launch cadence. In other words, a Starship program capable of realizing Artemis III even later in the decade can easily fly dearMoon too, as the latter lies squarely along the former’s developmental path. Recall also that Dennis Tito and his wife Akiko Tito purchased 2 out of 12 seats for a circumlunar Starship mission as of October 2022. There have been no updates on the mission since then.

Let’s not forget either that it’s exactly these kinds of commercial missions that NASA said it wants to promote to forge a lunar economy. In fact, the ability to carry out commercial lunar flights was a key evaluation criteria for NASA when awarding lunar lander developmental awards. Here’s an example quote from an interim source selection document while NASA was progressing in its selection of sustainable lunar landers (which ultimately led to the agency shortlisting SpaceX’s Lunar Starship and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon landers):

NASA recognizes the need to foster the commercial development of expertise and technologies required for reusable, sustainable, and human-rated landing systems. As one component of multiple HLS procurements, Appendix N will help NASA and U.S. industry accomplish this goal by procuring critical studies and risk reduction activities in support of sustainable human lunar lander services. Not only will this work meaningfully advance the research and development necessary to meet NASA’s long-term crewed lunar landing requirements, but it will also have commercial applications beyond NASA’s needs.

While there’s no doubt about Lunar Starship’s future potential, the delays and now the dearMoon mission cancellation are a clear sign of Starship milestones proving to be even more complex to achieve than initially anticipated.

Related read: The Lunacy of Artemis by Maciej Cegłowski (I don’t endorse the article wholly but agree with many aspects of it. It’s worth reading either way.)

More Moon

  • On May 30, Peru and Slovakia signed the US-led Artemis Accords for cooperative lunar exploration. Slovakia is the 19th European nation to sign the Accords but it’s Uruguay joining as the seventh Latin American country that’s interesting to me. The other Latin American signatories are Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, and Uruguay. Of these, the latter four along with the new Accords signee Peru are members of the recently formed “Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency”, or ALCE. Inspired in part by the model of the European Space Agency, ALCE aims to pool resources of Latin American nations to better their space activities and its impact.
  • ESA and NASA astronauts provided feedback on the usability of initial mockups of the ESA-led, Thales-provided Lunar I-Hab habitation module, the flight version of which will be part of the upcoming NASA-led Gateway lunar orbital habitat later this decade. This exercise will allow including major changes before the upcoming critical design review phase, after which assembly and integration of Lunar I-Hab can begin.
Mock spacesuits and a tool cart mimic the equipment Artemis astronauts might use during excursions on the Moon. Image: NASA / Josh Valcarcel

Last month NASA conducted the highest fidelity Moonwalk simulation exercise yet in a lunar-esque volcanic field in Arizona for the upcoming Artemis III mission intended to land two astronauts on the Moon’s south pole. Science writer Alexandra Witze covered the activities, their rationale, and importance right from the mission’s backroom.

To mimic the lighting conditions at the lunar south pole, JETT5 organizers built a ‘Sun cart’ — essentially a giant spotlight wheeled onto the landscape. To Rubins and Douglas, the light looked like the distant Sun hovering just above the horizon. The astronauts carefully navigated their way across the dim landscape, relying on a few personal lights to aid their work. [...] The point of JETT5 was to develop tools and procedures that will work for Artemis III astronauts on the lunar surface.


Not everything went smoothly during the night-time EVA. The flight-operations team deliberately built in some challenges, including dropping video communications with the astronauts any time they travelled too far from the lander. An artificial, 20-minute delay on downloading imagery meant that the science team often couldn’t see real-time photos of the rocks the astronauts were picking up.

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