China hopes to start exploratory work on base on the moon by 2024, says leading lunar scientist

South China Morning Post

Posted at Mar 09 2022 08:18 AM

Earth's moon. Image by NASA, JPL,USGS
Earth's moon. Image by NASA, JPL,USGS

A lead scientist in China's lunar program has unveiled details of plans for the county's first base on the moon, saying probes will start surveying the south pole for potentially vital resources, such as water.

China has teamed up with Russia to compete with the United States and its allies in setting up a permanent outpost on the Moon.

Unlike the Cold War space race, the goal this time is to stay. To do so requires a wide range of resources - ranging from oxygen and construction materials to water - and there is a three-phase plan to survey the lunar surface to get a clear picture of what will be found there.

Wu Weiren, chief designer of the Chang'e program, said on the sidelines of the annual lawmakers' gathering in Beijing on Monday that the construction of a lunar base would start with the Chang'e 6 mission, which is expected to be launched in around two years' time.

Chang'e 6 was initially intended to land on relatively flat terrain and test robotic sampling and return technology.

But Wu said the space authorities now want it to go to the Moon's rugged south pole, where the lunar base will be built, and bring samples back to Earth for laboratory analysis.

Two more probes will follow and carry out further experiments to learn more about the mineral resources there and how they can be used.

These missions will lay the ground work for an international research station at the lunar south pole before 2030, Wu added.

"The main purpose of all the work here is for the scientific exploration, development and utilization of lunar resources ... otherwise it will be meaningless to go there," he said, according to a report by Science and Technology Daily.

The United States is also looking at the lunar south pole, with the Artermis mission aiming to return astronauts to the surface of the moon for the first time since the early 1970s and set up a base there.

Unlike the relatively flat regions where the Apollo missions landed, the lunar south pole has an uneven surface, which limits the number of possible landing sites, Wu said.

Part of the polar region is also on the far side of the Moon, making direct communication with the Earth impossible without a satellite relay.

So far, only China has managed to land a robotic rover on the far side of the lunar south pole during 2019's Chang'e 4 mission.

"Returning samples from the polar region is difficult, but the value is high," said Wu.

The lunar south pole has some deep craters that might hold precious water resources in the form of ice and gets more direct sunlight that other parts of the moon, both factors that would make human settlement easier.

But humans are still relatively uncertain about what will be found there. A report by researchers with the Centre for Lunar and Planetary Science in December said the Apollo missions brought back 382kg (842lb) of lunar rock, while China and the Soviet Union had collected smaller samples.

But these activities were restricted to some small areas, and although orbiting satellites have surveyed the entire lunar surface, less information can be collected from remote sensing data.

Wu said Chang'e 7 would survey resources on the ground to fill the gaps in our knowledge.

A main target of the mission is to locate and retrieve some ice. A small flying probe would be deployed by the mother ship to investigate the bottom of a crater more than 10km deep, he told the China News Services.

The Chang'e 8 mission will test numerous technologies to make use of the moon's resources, such as looking at ways to create a chemical reaction that will allow oxygen to be produced or to melt lunar dust before using 3D prints to turn it into structures that would run on solar power.

Wu said that China would work with other nations to further expand the lunar base to a full scale international research station by 2035.

Russia is a main partner for China's lunar program and is planning numerous missions to help build the facility.

It is not yet clear whether the war in Ukraine will affect those plans or other countries' involvement.

The Chinese space authorities have said that a new generation of heavy-lift rockets capable of bringing Chinese astronauts to the moon will be ready before 2030.

Some scientists involved in the project have said the Chinese base will be mainly built underground and will rely on robots to run the surface facilities.

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