China Details Solar System Exploration Plans

by Adrian Beil

In the last few weeks, China has not only conducted several launches — of which one failed — but also detailed its Solar System exploration plans for the next decade, with updated details and target dates for several missions.

Chinese Long-Term Solar Exploration Plan

At the 74th International Astronautical Congress, China revealed an updated roadmap for its lunar and deep space exploration missions over the next seven years. The main focus was the sixth, seventh, and eighth missions of the Chang’e lunar exploration program. 

Chang’e 6 will be China’s second robotic sample return mission to the moon, which is currently slated for 2024. Over the course of a planned 53-day mission duration, it will aim to obtain soil and rock samples from the far side of the Moon and return them to Earth. It is expected to return about two kilograms of samples, from about two meters below the surface. The mission will also carry French, Italian, Swedish, and Pakistani secondary payloads, up to 10 kilograms in mass.

China’s Roadmap of Lunar and Deep Space Exploration. (Credit: CASC)

For Chang’e 7, China’s focus will return to the Moon’s south pole. The mission, planned for 2026, will study the surface environment and search for water ice in its soil. Other objectives include studying the magnetic field and thermal characteristics around the pole.

The final Chang’e mission that China discussed at the conference is Chang’e 8, which will test in-situ resource generation for the upcoming International Lunar Research Station. This is currently expected to launch in 2028 aboard a Chang Zheng 5 rocket. Secondary goals for the mission include researching enclosed mini-terrestrial ecosystems on the lunar surface.

To support these missions, China will also launch the Queqiao-2 (Magpie-2) relay satellite. This 1,200-kilogram spacecraft will be launched aboard a Chang Zheng 8 rocket and features a parabolic antenna for cislunar communication. It is expected to operate in an elliptical orbit around the moon for at least eight years. The relay will be needed for Chang’e 7 and 8 to transmit data back to Earth from the far side of the Moon.

The Chang Zheng 5 rocket will serve as the backbone of China’s Solar System exploration plans. (Credit: CASC)

The original Queqiao-1 satellite was launched in 2018 and is still in place at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrangian point. It has already supported several previous exploration missions and continues to operate.

While the Chang’e program is focused on the Moon, Tianwen missions, explore other bodies in the solar system. The Tianwen-2, 3, and 4 missions were also detailed in the presentation.

Tianwen-2 will launch on a Chang Zheng 3B in March 2025 to explore the near-Earth asteroid 469219 Kamoʻoalewa. After carrying out initial remote-sensing observations, it will collect a sample of 100g of regolith and it to the Earth. The spacecraft will then turn its attention to 311P/PanSTARRS, a comet-like asteroid, which it will reach in 2034.

Tianwen-3 will be a sample return mission to Mars. The mission will require two Chang Zheng 5 launches, the first of which is scheduled for 2028. The sample return is planned for July 2031.

The last mission that was detailed at the conference was Tianwen-4, which will explore Jupiter and the Jovian system. The launch, which will also be conducted by a Chang Zheng 5, is planned for October 2029, with an arrival at Jupiter in 2035, following gravity-assist flybys of Earth and Venus. 

Upcoming Tiangong Season

October will see the start of the next crew rotation for the Tiangong Space Station, with Shenzhou 17 planned to launch aboard a Chang Zheng 2F with a new Commander, Operator, and System Operator for the Space Station.

The spacecraft has already been stored at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC) since April 2023, on standby to serve as a lifeboat for the Station’s current crew in case of a significant problem with the Station itself or their Shenzhou 16 vehicle.

Shortly after Shenzhou 17’s docking, the Shenzhou 16 crew will start to prepare for their departure, ending a stay that began in May. Their mission included a spacewalk which was carried out in July, during which they performed various tasks, including installing a support frame for a panoramic camera outside the core module.

Autumn Launches and Gushenxing-1 Failure

The Gushenxing-1 (Ceres-1) rocket was launched from JSLC on its tenth mission at 04:59 UTC on Sept. 21, to deploy the Jilin-1 Gaofen-04B payload, but this was declared a failure.

From footage showing the launch from the ground, it looks like the failure happened during first stage flight. After liftoff, there was a break in the exhaust, where the exhaust turned orange before the vehicle exploded. All of this indicates some propulsion problems for the vehicle, which was then destroyed either by aerodynamic forces or a flight termination system.

Gushenxing-1 is a launcher constructed by the private spaceflight company Galactic Energy. It is a four-stage rocket, with three solid-propellant stages and a final stage fueled by hydrazine for orbital insertion. Gushenxing-1 can lift payloads of up to 400 kilograms into low-Earth orbit.

The Gushenxing-1 launch was one of five that China has carried out over the last few weeks. Most of these missions carried classified military reconnaissance satellites which have been given names in the Yaogen series.

On Sept. 17, at 04:13 UTC, a Chang Zheng 2D was launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center (XSLC) in China. The rocket carried a group of three satellites designated Yaogan 39 Group 02, which China has attributed to the purpose of remote sensing.

Liftoff of a Chang Zheng 2D. (Credit: CASC)

A further group of three satellites, Yaogan 39 Group 03, was also launched aboard a Chang Zheng 2D at 00:24 UTC on Oct. 5. This launch also took place from Xichang and was declared successful. 

Another Yaogan mission, Yaogan 33-04, was successfully launched from JSLC on a Chang Zheng 4C. Liftoff occurred on Sept. 26 at 20:15 UTC. The satellite was constructed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, with its stated purposes being scientific experimental research, marine, and land resource census, agricultural product production estimation, disaster prevention and reduction, and other fields. This is a generic placeholder that China often uses when it does not wish to reveal specific details of a satellite’s mission.

China’s most recent launch occurred at 00:54 UTC on Oct. 15. This was carried out by another Chang Zheng 2D flight from Jiuquan, with the Yunhai-1 04 payload. This satellite will be used for research into the atmosphere, marine and space environments, disaster prevention and mitigation, and scientific experiments. 

(Lead image: Clavius Crater on the Moon. Credit: NASA/USGS)

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