Most of the time this blog gets written when I completely stumble upon things about which I had no idea, and feel the urge to share. This is one of those moments.
Earlier today the China National Space Administration (CNSA) broadcast the launch of its latest lunar exploration mission – Chang’e 5 – from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan. I have to say I hadn’t heard about any of the five Chang’e missions, and so was fascinated to find that the last two have actually landed robotic probes on the moon. This latest mission is scheduled to bring back some samples of the lunar surface for the first time since 1976.
Chang’e (or 嫦娥 or Chang-o, although she was originally known as Heng’e) is the Chinese goddess of the Moon and so is a logical choice of name for the China Lunar Exploration Project.
“There are many tales about Chang’e, including a well-known story about her that is given as the origin of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. In a very distant past, ten suns had risen together into the skies and scorched the Earth, thus causing hardship for the people. The archer Yi shot down nine of them, leaving just one Sun, and was given the elixir of immortality as a reward. He did not consume it straight away, but let Chang’e keep it with her, as he did not want to gain immortality without his beloved wife Chang’e. However, while Yi went out hunting, his apprentice Fengmeng broke into his house and tried to force Chang’e to give him the elixir; she refused and to prevent him from getting it, drank it. Chang’e then flew upward toward the heavens, choosing the Moon as residence, as she loved her husband and hoped to live nearby him. Yi discovered what had transpired and felt sad, so he displayed the fruits and cakes that Chang’e had liked, and gave sacrifices to her.”(Wikipedia)
Chang’e 1 and 2 were orbiters launched in 2007 and 2010 respectively. They mostly carried out reconnaissance and mapping missions for future robotic and other landings. Chang’e 3 was launched on 1st December, 2013 and landed in (or on) the Mare Imbrium on December 14th, deploying a small lunar rover called Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”). Chang’e 4 was a backup for Chang’e 3 but acquired its own mission following the success of Chang’e 3. Chang’e 4 landed in January 2019 at the Von Kármán crater in the South Pole-Aitken basin (far side of the moon, the first lander to touch down on the far side) and deployed a rover called (yes, you guessed) Yutu-2.
Chang’e 5 is the next step in the program, and will attempt to place a lander at or near Mons Rümker sometime after November 27 and return to Earth around December 16–17. The mission will collect up to 2 kilograms of lunar samples. If returned successfully, these samples will be the first to be brought back since the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976.
Part of the rationale for the mission is reminiscent of Harrison Schmitt’s book Return to the Moon. Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) is described as a geologist and chemical cosmologist, and has been advocating the exploitation of metals such as titanium from the moon, but also the extraction of Helium-3 for future nuclear fusion power plants.
Three future Chang’e missions are slated. Chang’e 6 may have its mission profile changed depending on how well Chang’e 5 performs. Chang’e 7, scheduled for 2024 may deploy a small flying probe, while Chang’e 8, scheduled for 2027, may include a lander, a rover, and a flying detector, as well as a 3D-printing experiment using in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) to test-build a structure, which will test the technology necessary for the construction of a lunar science base. If that isn’t enough, it may also transport a small sealed ecosystem experiment.
Recently there has been a certain amount of speculation that the Russian space program may consider re-aligning itself with China rather than the United States, especially if the Chang’e project is successful. In 2017 the two countries signed an agreement on deep space and lunar cooperation It appears that the Chinese program is seriously considering establishing a crewed base on the moon in the foreseeable future.
In 1969 the following conversation took place between the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Apollo 11 crew just before the first Moon landing:
Ronald Evans (CAPCOM): Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, is one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-O has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.
Michael Collins (Command Module Pilot): Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.”Wikipedia