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China's Chang’e-6 Lunar Far Side Landing Set for This Weekend

China's Chang’e-6 is poised to make its critical lunar landing attempt this weekend, marking a pivotal moment in China’s mission to collect the first samples from the far side of the moon.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Wed May 29 2024Written by Zac Aubert

HELSINKI — China's Chang’e-6 is poised to make its critical lunar landing attempt this weekend, marking a pivotal moment in China’s mission to collect the first samples from the far side of the moon.

Launched on May 3, Chang’e-6 entered lunar orbit just over four days later. Since then, it has been awaiting optimal conditions for its landing attempt. The far side of the moon, permanently hidden from Earth’s view, holds significant scientific mysteries related to the moon’s history and composition.

The mission targets a landing in the southern part of Apollo crater within the vast South Pole-Aitken basin. The sun began to rise over this area on the lunar far side early on May 28.

Lunar Landing + Launch Schedule

Landing is scheduled for approximately 8:00 p.m. Eastern Saturday, June 1 (0000 UTC June 2), according to the European Space Agency (ESA), which is involved through a Swedish-developed payload.

The Chang’e-6 lander module will separate from the mission orbiter in lunar orbit in preparation for descent. The landing timing is crucial, depending on suitable lighting conditions on the surface and the lander’s orbit.

If the landing is successful, the lander will conduct initial checks and setup before drilling and collecting surface materials. Up to 2,000 grams of these samples will be loaded into an ascent vehicle, which will then launch back into lunar orbit for rendezvous and docking with the orbiter. Surface operations are expected to last about 48 hours.

Chinese scientists are eager to analyze the samples if they are successfully delivered to Earth around June 25.

Chang’e-6 Spacecraft and Payloads

The mission includes several international scientific instruments. The Negative Ions at the Lunar Surface (NILS) payload, developed by the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, and the Detection of Outgassing RadoN (DORN) instrument from France will collect data during the lander’s operational period on the surface. An Italian passive laser retro-reflector is aboard the lander, which is also carrying a small rover. The lander will likely sustain damage from the ascent module launch, ending surface operations.

Additionally, Chang’e-6 carried a small satellite, Icube-Q, jointly developed by Pakistani and Chinese universities, which captured images of the moon and sun once released into lunar orbit.

Direct communication with the far side of the moon is impossible due to its permanent position out of Earth's view. To address this, the mission is supported by the Queqiao-2 satellite, which operates in a specialized lunar orbit to relay communications between Chang’e-6 and ground stations on Earth.

Mission Progress and Future Plans

Based on the 2020 Chang’e-5 nearside sample return mission, the Chang’e-6 ascender and orbiter will likely rendezvous and dock around two days after the ascent module launch. The ascender will be discarded a few days later. The orbiter will then prepare to leave lunar orbit and release a reentry capsule ahead of its return to Earth, expected around June 25.

The Chang’e-5 mission collected 1,731 grams of samples, slightly less than the expected 2,000 grams due to a drilling issue. These samples provided new insights into the moon’s composition and history. Initially available to Chinese institutions, access to the samples has been expanded to international scientists, with NASA researchers also permitted to apply for samples despite a Congressional prohibition on bilateral activities between NASA and Chinese entities.

Chang’e-6 is part of China’s broader lunar ambitions. The country plans to follow up with two missions to the moon’s south pole: Chang’e-7 in 2026 and Chang’e-8 around 2028. China aims to launch its first crewed lunar mission by 2030.

These missions are steps toward establishing a permanent lunar base under the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) program, planned for the 2030s. Several countries and organizations have signed up for this ambitious project.