Podcast: How Chang’e 5 Fits into China’s Space Program

The latest mission to return a sample from the lunar surface is part of China’s internally focused effort to put humans on the Moon.

Aviation Week editors discuss the project on the latest episode of Check 6. Don't miss a single episode. You can subscribe on iTunes, StitcherSpotify and Google Play. Please leave us a review.

 

Rush transcript:

 

Jen DiMascio:

Hello and welcome to the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Jen DiMascio, Aviation Week's Executive Editor for Defense and Space. And I'm here with longtime Beijing Bureau Chief, Bradley Perrett, and Space Editor, Irene Klotz. We are here today to talk about one of this week's big developments, the arrival of China's Chang'e 5 lander on the moon, or did I say that correctly Brad?

Bradley Perrett:

Oh, no you didn't. Well, it's enough. It comes down to how strict you ought to be when you're using foreign words, the Chinese say, "Chang-o". So, the "o" is pronounced just as in "huh", Chang'e. But I suspect that if the world's best community can handle that, they might just stick with Chang'e.

Jen DiMascio:

Okay. Well, since you've been covering this story, tell us about the achievement and the mission itself. What will the lander be doing during its time on the moon and how will it return to Earth?

Bradley Perrett:

Right. Well, actually it's already begun doing it. So, the landing was early on... So, it was December 1 in China. It was and therefore already December 1 in the United States, when the Lander popped down onto the lunar surface. And within six hours it had already begun doing its business, which is to collect samples. To drill down two meters. This is not the entire process, but it drilled out two meters, picked up some samples and sealed those away for return to earth. But that was only the beginning. It's still doing it as we're speaking here on December 3, China time.

Jen DiMascio:

And then what happens next? What kind of engineering went into getting the lander down to the moon and what will take it back up to rendezvous and get back to Earth?

Bradley Perrett:

Well, the mission configuration is very much like a pull up. So, let's just quickly describe the spacecraft, as it was launched, start from the bottom. There's what the Chinese are calling the orbiter. That's the service module with propulsion. Stacked on top of that was the return capsule, which the Chinese are calling the returner, stacked on top of that was the landing module, the Chinese is call it the lander. And on top of that, the ascender, which will take off from the surface after about two days of work.

So, that assembly of four pieces, four modules separated into two in lunar orbit, The lander and with The ascender on its back landed. And then The ascender will go back into orbit. It will connect then with the orbiter and returner in orbit. The samples will be transferred from The ascender into The returner. The ascender will be... And the orbiter, they call it, will push the returner back to earth and then on approach separate, and the return come down and land in inner Mongolia.

Jen DiMascio:

Thanks, Brad. You've really reported on the expansion of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. Can you talk about how this fits into that history?

Bradley Perrett:

Yeah, sure can. In fact Jen, I didn't fully answer one of your questions and this is part of how it fits in. With each step of their program, as originally planned and has now been expanded, it conventionally, each step add some new tricks, some new things which hadn't been done before. So, this one, it's the return.

So, let's go back to the beginning of the program, which was launched in... I think the program was kicked off... The engineering work began in I think, 2002. And then the first mission was Chang'e 1, sorry, I'm going to stick with Chinese pronunciation, Chang'e 1 in 2007. And the idea was just to orbit. To actually get a spacecraft into orbit. And they did do that with first stage.

The original idea was there would be three stages. In each stage there would be two spacecraft built. The second one in each case would be a backup for the first. But if the first mission in each phase succeeded, then the backup could be modified to do something a bit more adventurous in the second part of each phase. So, Chang'e worked. Chang'e 2 was modified a bit and it was sent out in 2010. This is all going very slowly compared to the 1960s with the Soviet Union and the United States, their race to the moon. So, they went into orbit. Now the next one, was to land and that was Chang'e 3, which did land in 2013.

So, that achieved that new technology, which of course will be needed for a manned program if that happens. Chang'e 5 also landed. It was a backup. They did something fancy. They landed on the far side of the moon. And that was the end of phase 2. Now, phase 3, was originally supposed to be Chang'e 5 and Chang'e 6. Chang'e 6 is the backup, the spacecraft for that. Anyway, Chang'e 5 is now going ahead. That's our current mission and it's landing again.

And now it has to do an ascend from the Moon, which will be required in manned missions and orbital docking, docking in lunar orbit. It also has to return to the earth, but they actually did that a few years ago with a technology demonstration mission, in which the scale capsule was... I think it was the scale capsule, was sent out around the moon, it didn't land, but it was sent out around the moon and then did come back to earth and survived reentry at those higher velocities involved in landing missions.

Let me just go on a little bit more. So, let me go back over, just to recap, phase 1, two missions, Chang'e 1 and 2. Phase 2, two missions, Chang'e 3 and 4. Originally phase 3, Chang'e 5 and 6. Now last year, however, the Chinese were seeing the Chang'e 5 was the only one mission in Chang'e 3... sorry, in phase 3. And there's a new phase 4 and phase 4 is more explicitly aimed at preparing for manned missions to the moon. And Chang'e 6, the last time I saw a schedule for it, was to go ahead in 2023/24.

Then there is Chang'e 7 and Chang'e 8, which are proposed for this decade sometime. And there's been mention for Chang'e 9 as well, which would also go ahead this decade, if approved.

Jen DiMascio:

And Chang'e 6, would that be a polar mission?

Bradley Perrett:

Yeah. So, they're supposed to be landing on the South Pole. Again, because the Chang'e 6 hardware has been built as a backup for Chang'e 5, it'll do much the same thing. It will be... According to the summary that I read last year, the main objectives are sample return, geological assessment, and a search for water on the South Pole. Chang'e 7, which as I said, the timing for which is not stated more precisely than this decade, is also for the South Pole. That's for topographical research, material and space environment assessment. That's how they've described that one.

Jen DiMascio:

So, when do you expect China could put humans on the Moon?

Bradley Perrett:

Since the Chang'e preparatory missions it's going through for all of this decade, I think that implies pretty well that a manned mission would not happen this decade, it would happen next decade. Now, we're quite early, quite a few years ago, they began work... I can't remember exactly off the top of my head, maybe it was right about 2014. They began fairly heavy work on technology acquisition for a manned mission.

The first thing of course to work on were enormous engines. And they have been working on those and therefore... And this was all intended... Has been intended to feed into or to produce what we usually call a moon rocket. A rocket with a sort of lifting class of Saturn V and that's been casually... I think it is officially called Long March 9.

Now Long March 9 has been scheduled to fly out I think around about 2030, from the top of my head, maybe early, maybe 2031, somebody once said. Now it would fly presumably a few times without carrying anybody, which would put the manned mission, therefore, deep into the 2030s. However, we have been following developments in which CASC with the state, the organization which is the main contractor to the industry, has been preparing an idea for a manned rocket, which would be made from an assembly of parts and modules, airframe diameters, engines, that are already available. And therefore should be possible to be put into service rather earlier than 2030, I would have thought.

And it would execute the mission in a multi-shot arrangement. Dockings in... From memory, with docking in earth orbit. And there's also docking in lunar orbit. I'm sorry. I've come on to our podcast without having refresh my memory on that one. So, this is a long answer, but I think the situation is quite interesting. It originally looked like 2030s clearly, simply because of the development schedule of their moon rocket. But now we have a smaller rocket, which looks like it could do it in multi-shot missions. But on the other hand, we still have this Chang'e robotic exploratory phase, going into... Looks like throughout the 2020s.

Jen DiMascio:

Interesting. So, it's almost a two-track effort?

Bradley Perrett:

Well, the question arose and I didn't have a full answer, is if they're going to use the smaller rocket, which is not at all small, in a multi-shot mission to take people to the moon, what's the Long March 5... Long March 9, the monster moon rocket for? It would appear to be that its function would be to carry the base. And they're not talking... The Chinese are not looking at the idea of just a quick stop for a few days in something like the Lunar Lander of the Apollo mission. They're looking at something rather larger as the ground installation for it. And it looks like the Long March 9 would be needed for that.

So, it's not like a two-track tool alternative ways of getting there. It looks like they're coming out with one way of getting people there, backwards and forwards. And another way of getting their base there.

Jen DiMascio:

Thanks, Brad. I wanted to just go back to this specific mission again. There's been a lot of talk about this Chang'e collecting the youngest ever sample of the moon. Irene, can you explain how younger that is relative to say what was collected during the Apollo mission and why that is significant?

Irene Klotz:

Hi, thanks. So, the target for the Chinese sample-return, they're looking at an area of the Moon that's geologically very young, about 1.2 billion years old. And that compares to about 3.1 to 4.4 billion for the samples brought back by the Americans and the Soviets in the 1970s. So, it's kind of an interesting period of time back then there may have been multicellular life already starting on earth. And scientifically, there's a question about why this area of the moon had volcanic activity so much longer and so much more activity than the rest of the moon.

So, by analyzing the samples that are coming back and they're aiming to get, I think it's about two pounds, four pounds of sample return. They want to be able to look at the minerals of it and assess what sort of elements it has and how that related to the ability of this part of the moon do stay hot for so long.

Jen DiMascio:

Might that tell us something about just beyond the presence of minerals, but about life in space?

Irene Klotz:

Well, it's a part of the story of how did the solar system evolve? A lot of this... All of the early records from earth have been expunged by the natural weathering processes and on places like the moon and on Mars, it exists there on the surface, or this mission is drilling about six feet into the surface and retrieving about a pound of sample from inside the moon.

Jen DiMascio:

Interesting. There's so much competition between the U.S. and China in terms of scientific exploration and also getting humans to the Moon. Where do you see that trajectory headed? I guess that's a question for both of you, but maybe Irene first.

Irene Klotz:

Well, as you know, the NASA is prohibited by law from direct dealings with China. There've been a couple of examples of scientific sharing, and there is always an option like in this mission, sharing samples certainly seems like a reasonable way to kind of open the doors towards joint exploration.

The countries go about their programs very differently. The United States, I don't think could match the money that China's pouring into it, and is relying more on the innovation of the commercial sector, to get ahead, stay ahead or continue to kind of broaden the frontiers on more than one front. I think that the model of who's on first is going to be changing. At least when it comes to scientific discovery and exploration

Bradley Perrett:

It's important to ask again, why are they doing this? And we talk about the science, but of course it's not the science, which justifies this sort of spending. It wasn't in the 1960s for the Apollo mission, and it's not for the Chinese now. So, I always say that the thing to remember is that, whereas the Soviet and the US race to the moon in the 60s was driven by propaganda. The Chinese one is also driven by propaganda utility, I should say. But whereas the Soviet Union and the United States saw this as external propaganda, a message to the world about their strength. For China, this is primarily internal propaganda. After all, the first robotic mission to the moon happened more than 50 years ago, by the time the China lands, it will be following more than 60 years behind.

The reason the Chinese government funds this, is to show the Chinese people that China can do it. Now that then brings up the question of, is it a race? Well, as I said, the race was already lost, the race has been lost by decades and decades and decades. And I think from the point of view of the Chinese Communist Party, the risk of an unsuccessful mission is a far larger issue than the bragging rights for getting somewhere a year ahead of somebody else, who is to going there for the second time, for example.

So, I don't think there's much terribly present schedule on the Chinese there. They will be overwhelmingly focused on making sure they don't have a mishap. And let me just elaborate on that, you can see how badly they take it when something goes wrong in space, from the way their media handles it, Long March 5, which is the rocket type that launched Chang'e 5, went into service I think in end of 2016, and on its second shot in 2017, and then it failed. And the result was a complete media clampdown. I think there was one sentence issued and all the media simply repeated one sentence. Why? Because it's embarrassing. And that was just a rocket with nobody on board.

Jen DiMascio:

Brad on that note, do you think that this lunar rendezvous and docking, how risky do you think that is?

Bradley Perrett:

I'd be surprised if they pull it off. They don't... Failure, you can't say failure is an option, but in the weighing of whether to take a little bit more time to make sure it works versus the embarrassment of taking a little bit more time, they'll always go for the first option. And also they've had plenty of time. They've had more time than they expected because of that Long March 5 launch failure in 2017. And if I remember correctly, Chang'e 5 was supposed to go up in 2017. Shortly after that launch failure, then it got bumped to 2018, then to 2019, then to 2020, probably because of other demands on the Long March 5 program. So, just got bumped down the manifest.

We can assume that the program has been launched. It has been using that time to review its planning and review its technology and to look one more time, whether this is going to work. So, the answer is, I think I'd be surprised if it didn't.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, unfortunately, that's all we have time for today though. There's a lot more we could discuss. But please tune in again next week, when we continue along with our Check 6 podcasts that are available on iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play. Thank you.

 

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Bradley Perrett

Bradley Perrett covers China, Japan, South Korea and Australia. He is a Mandarin-speaking Australian.

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.