Rather than relying on the future super-heavy Long March 9 launcher to send its first crews to the moon in the early 2030s, China could modify two already existing launchers. In this way, the country could arrive earlier, probably in the decade.
A few months ago, the heads of the Chinese and Russian space agencies signed an agreement providing for the construction of a research station on the Moon. On site, astronauts will be able to conduct multidisciplinary studies related to the exploration and exploitation of our satellite. The objective will also be to establish facilities capable of supporting a human presence if necessary.
The project will be carried out in several phases. The first will consist of collecting data by relying on several probes to determine the location of the future base near the lunar south pole. These missions will include the Chinese Chang’e-6 and Chang’e-7 missions and the Russian Luna 25, 26 and 27 missions. All of these vessels should operate from 2024-2025.
During the second phase of the project (2026 to 2030), the Chinese mission Chang’e-8 and the Russian mission Luna 28 will settle on the chosen site. The construction of the facilities will be driven by robotic systems. In the idea, China hoped to send the first astronauts there from the beginning of the 2030s by relying on its super-heavy Long March 9 launcher, under development.
That said, it is also possible that China is operating differently to accelerate the development of its first manned lunar mission.
The Moon seen by the Galileo space probe in 1992. Credits: NASA / JPL / USGS
Modified Long March 5 rockets
According to Long Lehao, chief designer of the Long March rocket family, China could indeed rely on two modified Long March 5 rockets to improve their performance. For the moment, these rockets have a capacity similar to that of the Delta IV Heavy, of the United Launch Alliance (ULA).
If this project sees the light of day, one of these large rockets (which would henceforth be called Long March 5-DY) would launch a lunar lander into lunar orbit while the second would send the crew to meet it. The crew would then be transferred on board the lander to go to the surface. The astronauts would spend about six hours there before returning to Earth.
For Eric Berger of Ars Technica, using a rocket model could actually get China to reach the moon faster. Also, the fact that Long Lehao himself brought up the idea suggests that it is more of an option than possible. According to Andrew Jones, a reporter who closely follows the Chinese space program, an announcement about it could be made at the Zhuhai airshow in late September or early October.
If it materializes, this project will only fuel the idea that NASA and China are indeed engaged in a real “space race”, involving on the one hand the United States and its partners against the China and Russia. It remains to be seen if all these beautiful people will be able to get along.