China is gearing up for two groundbreaking missions to the Moon, the first in 2018 being the first-ever mission to the lunar far side surface and the second returning samples to Earth in 2019.
The first mission is called Chang’e-4, with the initial part of that mission – a relay satellite to send signals back to Earth – having launched back in May. Now China is preparing to launch the next part of the mission in December 2018.
It will include a rover that's almost identical to the Chang'e-3 mission's Yutu rover that landed on the near side of the Moon in 2013. It will be carried to the Moon on a Long March 3B rocket, lifting off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwest of the country.
China revealed new details about the mission, including the updated launch date, at a news conference in Beijing last week by the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND). The agency is also running a naming contest for the rover, which will close on September 5.
While the Chang'e-4 rover is similar to the Yutu rover, "it also has adaptable parts and an adjustable payload configuration to deal with the complex terrain on the far side of the moon, the demand of relay communication, and the actual needs of the scientific objectives," the state news website Xinhua noted.
The probe will land in the Aitken Basin in the south pole region of the Moon, an exciting locale that was recently confirmed to have water ice at the surface. All previous lunar landings have occurred on the near side of the Moon, although numerous spacecraft – including the Apollo missions – have orbited over the far side.
The second mission is Chang’e-5, a bold proposal to return samples from the Moon for the first time since the 1970s, outlined in a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.
Launching on a Long March 5 rocket in 2019, a lander will scoop up about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of material, up to a depth of about 2 meters (6.5 feet), reports Space.com. Chang’e-5 is intended to land in a volcanic lunar plain called Oceanus Procellarum, returning scientifically interesting material back to Earth.
“Getting this stuff back to Earth would be a big deal,” the website said. “No new lunar samples have made their way into terrestrial laboratories since the former Soviet Union's Luna 24 mission pulled the feat off in 1976.”
While the US continues to debate how or if it will return to the Moon, China is making huge strides. And come next year, they might just have two more major achievements under their belt.