Chinese probe launched on round-trip flight to the moon

A Chinese Long March 3C rocket lifted off at 1800 GMT (2 p.m. EDT; 2 a.m. Beijing time). Credit: Xinhua
A Chinese Long March 3C rocket lifted off at 1800 GMT (2 p.m. EDT; 2 a.m. Beijing time). Credit: Xinhua

China launched a demonstrator probe Thursday on a round-trip flight around the moon to test out a heat shield and landing capsule planned for use on a lunar sample return mission in 2017.

The unmanned spacecraft blasted off on top of a Long March 3C rocket from the Xichang space center in southwest China’s Sichuan province, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Xinhua’s report did not disclose the launch time, but imagery captured inside a Chinese mission control center indicated the launch occurred at 1800 GMT (2 p.m. EDT) Thursday, or 2 a.m. Beijing time Friday.

Boosted by a pair of strap-on liquid-fueled engines, the 18-story-tall Long March 3C launcher dispatched the lunar test probe on an orbit soaring 413,000 kilometers, or 256,000 miles, from Earth, according to Xinhua.

State media reported the spacecraft separated from the upper stage of the Long March rocket as planned, citing China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.

The test flight is a precursor to China’s Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission.

Unofficially called Chang’e 5 T1, the demonstrator will swing around the far side of the moon, using lunar gravity to slingshot the craft back to Earth.

Designed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the probe is on track for a lunar flyby Monday, with the flight expected to conclude with a high-speed re-entry back into Earth’s atmosphere Oct. 31, U.S. time.

Speeding toward Earth at nearly 7 miles per second, or roughly 25,000 mph, the re-entry capsule will dip into the atmosphere multiple times to slow the craft down before landing in China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

Such re-entry velocities are faster than Chinese astronauts experience when returning from orbit several hundred miles above Earth.

The “skip re-entry” will help diminish heat the landing capsule will encounter during descent, experts told the China Daily newspaper.

The re-entry capsule land under parachute for retrieval by Chinese space officials.

“The mission is to obtain experimental data and validate re-entry technologies such as guidance, navigation and control, heat shield and trajectory design for a future touchdown on the moon by Chang’e-5, which is expected to be sent to the moon, collect samples and return to Earth in 2017,” Xinhua reported.

Artist's concept of the Chang'e 5 lunar sample return mission. Credit: CCTV
Artist’s concept of the Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission. Credit: CCTV

If successful, the round-trip test flight will precede the start of the third phase of China’s lunar exploration program, officials said.

China launched two orbiters around the moon — Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2 — in 2007 and 2010 to survey the lunar surface.

The Chang’e 3 lunar probe landed Dec. 14, 2013, making China the third country to achieve a soft landing on the moon after the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Chang’e 3 deployed a small rover named Yutu, which drove away from the mission’s stationary landing platform, collecting images, studying the composition of the moon’s soil and rocks, and probing the moon’s underground structure with a ground-penetrating radar.

Chinese officials said Yutu suffered a glitch in a control system in January, rendering the rover immobile and exposed to cold temperatures during lunar nights, which last two weeks.

Earlier this month, Xinhua reported the Yutu rover was losing functionality but still alive after nearly 10 months on the moon, surpassing the craft’s original design lifetime of three months.

“Yutu has gone through freezing lunar nights under abnormal status, and its functions are gradually degrading,” said Yu Dengyun, chief designer of China’s lunar probe mission, in a report by Xinhua.

“We hoped the moon rover would go farther, and we really want to find the true reason why it didn’t,” Yu told Xinhua in an interview.

China developed a backup mission for the Chang’e 3 lunar lander. The backup spacecraft, named Chang’e 4, will now help prove systems required for the more ambitious Chang’e 5 mission, Xinhua reported.

Details on the specific objectives and planned launch date for Chang’e 4 have not been released by China.

The Chang’e 5 mission will follow with launch in 2017 to scoop up lunar soil and return it to Earth. China also has plans for a Chang’e 6 sample return mission some time before 2020.

China is studying sending astronauts on lunar missions after scouting the moon with robotic spacecraft, according to official media reports.

Near-term plans for China’s human space program are focused on constructing a space station in low Earth orbit.