Manned Lunar Programme

The Chinese space industry has been studying the feasibility of a mission to land human on the Moon, followed by a man-tended lunar base. So far only conceptual studies have been carried out, with no programme being officially approved by the Chinese government. Relevant pre-research is currently underway, including the development of high-thrust rocket engines for a super heavy-lift launcher.

Talks about a possible manned lunar mission emerged within the Chinese space community in the early 2000s. During the Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) displayed a mock-up showing Chinese astronauts driving a lunar rover on the Moon surface and a lunar base.

In 2004, the Chinese government approved the plan for a robotic lunar exploration programme, which proposed to launch one or two unmanned probes to orbit the Moon, followed by one or two missions to soft-land on the Moon surface, and to eventually return lunar soil samples to Earth. As well as for scientific research, these missions also allowed the Chinese space industry to develop all the techniques required by a manned lunar mission, including lunar soft-landing and high-speed atmospheric re-entry from the translunar flight.

In 2009, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) published a report outlining the roadmap for the country’s space science and technology by 2050. The report suggested that China should land human on the Moon by 2030, and then build a temporarily man-tended lunar base by 2040. Guo Huadong, director of the CAS space technology strategy research team, explained that the roadmap was “not an official government plan, but a strategic recommendation for policymakers.” He emphasised that the Chinese Government had no plan or timetable for a manned lunar mission.

During his speech in 2009, Yu Dengyun, deputy chief designer of the Chang’e robotic lunar exploration programme, revealed that a manned lunar programme including lunar landing and a temporarily man-tended lunar base was being evaluated, though there was no official plan for such a programme yet. He also revealed that the CASC was developing two concepts for a launch vehicle and manned lunar craft vehicle. The first concept would use a newly-developed Saturn V-class super heavy-lift launch vehicle to send modules of the lunar landing vehicle directly to lunar orbit, where the spacecraft would be assembled through a single rendezvous docking operation. The second concept would require multiple launches using existing launch vehicles such as the CZ-5, with multiple rendezvous docking operations on Earth orbit and a single rendezvous docking operation on lunar orbit to assemble the landing vehicle.

The 2011 edition of the Chinese Space Activities whitepaper confirmed that China had been conducting preliminary feasibility studies on a manned lunar landing mission – the most explicit recognition by the Chinese space authority that a manned lunar mission had found its way to the country’s space agenda.

Long Lehao, a top Chinese rocket scientist and former chief designer at China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), has developed the concept for a manned lunar landing mission, using an enhanced variant of the CZ-5 launch vehicle and a lunar spacecraft consisting of a modified Shenzhou crew vehicle and a lunar landing vehicle. The concept required three orbital launches from Earth within 5 days to loft two 100 t-thrust trans-lunar injection stages (TLIS) and a lunar spacecraft with its crew, which will perform two Earth orbit rendezvous (EOR) to complete the assembly of the lunar spacecraft complex.

Once arriving at lunar orbit, the lunar spacecraft complex will jettison the used TLIS modules, and then perform a lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) to allow the crew to enter the lunar landing vehicle. The crew then perform an Apollo-style landing on the Moon and explore the lunar surface for three days, before returning to lunar orbit aboard the ascent stage of the lunar landing vehicle. A LOR will then be performed for the crew to return to the Shenzhou crew vehicle, which will bring the crew back to Earth orbit and then perform an atmospheric re-entry to land.

Long’s proposal is largely based on China’s existing spaceflight hardware with only some limited modifications required. However, the mission would be highly complex, requiring multiple EORs and LORs, and only allow three days of EVA on lunar surface. It appears that the Chinese space industry is now seeking an alternative approach using a super heavy lift launch vehicle to send the lunar spacecraft and its crew directly to lunar orbit, without requiring EOR. Alternatively, for better safety the crew can be launched by a separate CZ-5 launch vehicle and then docked with the lunar transfer modules and lunar landing vehicle through a single EOR before travelling to the Moon.

Associated Subjects

CZ-9 — Super heavy-lift launch vehicle intended for future manned lunar landing and deep space exploration missions. Roughly 100 m in length and 8 to 9 m in diameter, assisted by two or four 3 m diameter solid rocket boosters, with a lift-off thrust of 5,200 to 5,500 tonnes, the launch vehicle will be capable of delivering 130 tonnes of payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), same as the heavier Block 2 version of the NASA Space Launch System (SLS).


New-generation multi-purpose crew vehicle – China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) has been developing a new-generation multi-purpose crew vehicle for future manned spaceflight missions to LEO and beyond. The not-yet-named spacecraft will be capable of carrying capable of carrying 2 to 6 crew members to Earth orbit, the Moon, Lagrange Points, Near Earth Asteroids, and Mars. Two versions of the spacecraft based on the same crew module but with different propulsion systems have been proposed: a 14-tonne mass version for LEO and deep space missions, and a 20-tonne mass version for manned lunar landing.


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Chronology

2010 June – Long Lehao published proposal for a manned lunar landing mission. Long Lehao, a top Chinese rocket scientist and former chief designer at China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), published a paper outlining his proposal for a manned lunar landing mission using largely existing Chinese space hardware. Long proposed a 13 t-mass lunar spacecraft consisting of a modified Shenzhou crew vehicle and a 17 t-mass lunar landing vehicle, launched by an enhanced version of the CZ-5 orbital launcher, with six strap-on boosters. The concept required three orbital launches from the Wenchang space centre within 5 days to loft the lunar spacecraft and two 100 t-thrust trans-lunar injection stages (TLIS), which will then perform two Earth orbit rendezvous (EOR) to complete the assembly of the lunar spacecraft complex. Once arriving at lunar orbit, the two used TLIS modules will be jettisoned, and the lunar spacecraft will perform a lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) to allow the crew to enter the lunar landing vehicle. The crew then perform an Apollo-style landing on the Moon and explore the lunar surface for three days, before returning to lunar orbit aboard the ascent stage of the lunar landing vehicle. A LOR will then be performed for the crew to return to the Shenzhou crew vehicle, which will bring the crew back to Earth orbit and then perform an atmospheric re-entry to land.


2011 December 29 – Manned lunar landing mentioned in Chinese Space Activities whitepaper. The Chinese government published the 2011 edition of the Chinese Space Activities whitepaper, which confirmed that China had been conducting preliminary feasibility studies on manned lunar landing. This was so far the most explicit confirmation that the Chinese space industry was considering a manned lunar programme.


2016 June 25 20:00:07 CST – Subscale re-entry capsule launched. Launch site: Wenchang. Launch vehicle family: CZ-7. Launch vehicle: CZ-7 (Y1). In its debut flight, the CZ-7 launcher carried a subscale re-entry capsule for for new-generation multi-purpose crew vehicle. The capsule, which was successfully recovered after 19 hours of orbital flight, was 2.3 m in length and 2.6 m in diameter, with a total mass of 2,600 to 2,800 kg. Onboard systems included batteries, propulsions, a guidance & navigation system, heat shield, parachutes, and a communications system capable of transmitting through the plasma occurring during the hypersonic atmospheric re-entry sequence. Sensors were fitted on the capsule to collect aerodynamic and heating data during the atmospheric re-entry. The capsule also featured a reusable airframe built from lightweight alloys and covered by expandable heat-resistant protective layers and shielding.


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