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Chang'e-6 Launches Ascent Vehicle to Lunar Orbit Following Completion Of Lunar Sample Collection

China's Chang'e-6 mission has successfully completed its lunar sample collection on the moon's far side and launched its ascent vehicle into lunar orbit.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Tue Jun 04 2024Written by Zac Aubert

China's Chang'e-6 mission has successfully completed its lunar sample collection on the moon's far side and launched its ascent vehicle into lunar orbit. WATCH LAUNCH VIDEO

The ascender fired its 3000N engine at 23:38 UTC on June 3rd, entering a 15x180km lunar orbit just six minutes later. Over the next few days, it will perform four additional orbital maneuvers to reach a 210km lunar orbit, where it will rendezvous with the return module.

The Chang'e-6 mission, which follows the successful Chang'e-5 nearside sample return in 2020, is equipped with several international scientific instruments. The Swedish-developed Negative Ions at the Lunar Surface (NILS) payload and the French Detection of Outgassing Radon (DORN) instrument were to collect vital data during the lander's operation on the lunar surface. Additionally, the mission carried an Italian passive laser retro-reflector and a small rover to enhance the scientific output. Chang'e-6 also carried a small satellite, Icube-Q, jointly developed by Pakistani and Chinese universitiesl which successfully captured images of the moon and the sun.

The ascent module's launch is expected to damage the lander, marking the end of its surface operations.

Given the far side of the moon's permanent position out of Earth's direct view, direct communication poses a challenge. To overcome this, the mission is supported by the Queqiao-2 satellite, which operates in a specialized orbit to relay communications between Chang'e-6 and ground stations on Earth.

Based on the successful 2020 Chang'e-5 mission, the Chang'e-6 ascender and orbiter are expected to rendezvous and dock approximately two days after the ascent module launch. The ascender will be discarded a few days later, and the orbiter will then prepare to leave lunar orbit, releasing a reentry capsule expected to return to Earth around June 25.

China's ambitious moon program is part of a broader competition with other nations, including the U.S., Japan, and India, to explore space.

China has successfully put its own space station into orbit and regularly sends crews there. The emerging global power aims to put a person on the moon before 2030, making it the second nation after the United States to do so. In contrast, NASA has postponed its planned manned moon landing to 2026.

Chang'e-6 is a critical component of China's broader lunar ambitions. The country plans to follow up with Chang'e-7 in 2026 and Chang'e-8 around 2028, targeting the moon's south pole. These missions are crucial steps towards establishing a permanent lunar base under the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) program, planned for the 2030s.

Several countries and organizations have already signed up for this ambitious project, reflecting China's growing influence and commitment to leading the next era of space exploration.