NASA hasn’t landed on the Moon in decades; China just sent the third in six years

A Long March 5 rocket carrying the Chang'e-6 lunar probe lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on May 3, 2024 in Wenchang, China.
Enlarge / A Long March 5 rocket carrying the Chang’e-6 lunar probe lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on May 3, 2024 in Wenchang, China.

Li Zhenzhou/VCG via Getty Images

China will return to the Moon in search of more samples.

On Friday the country launched its largest rocket, Long March 5, which carries an orbiter, a lander, an ascent vehicle and a return spacecraft. The combined mass of the Chang’e-6 spacecraft is about 8 metric tons and it will attempt to return rocks and soil from the far side of the Moon, something scientists have never been able to study in depth before.

The mission’s goal is to bring about 2 kg (4.4 pounds) of rocks to Earth in just over a month.

Chang’e-6 is based on the successful lunar program of the Chinese space program. In 2019, the Chang’e-4 mission made a soft landing on the far side of the Moon, the first time a spacecraft had done so. The far side is more challenging than the near side, because line-of-sight communications are not possible with Earth.

Then, in late 2020, the Chang’e-5 mission landed on the near side of the Moon and successfully collected 1.7 kg of rocks. They were later ejected from the surface of the Moon and returned to China, where they have been studied ever since. It was the first time in half a century, since the efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union, that samples were returned from the Moon.

Ambitious plans

The latest Chinese flight to the Moon launched on Friday will synthesize what the country has learned in its last two missions, collecting and returning samples from the far side of the Moon.

“If the Chang’e-6 mission can achieve its goal, it will provide scientists with the first direct evidence to understand the environment and material composition of the far side of the Moon, which is of great importance,” said Wu Weiren, an Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and chief designer of China’s lunar exploration program.

This mission follows the launch and deployment of the Queqiao-2 relay satellite in March, which will serve as a bridge between communications from the far side of the Moon to operators on Earth. China has also announced two future lunar missions, Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8, later this decade. These robotic missions will land near the lunar South Pole, test lunar resources and pave the way for future manned missions.

Nominally, China’s current plan calls for the first landing of two taikonauts on the surface of the Moon in 2029 or 2030. Eventually, it wants to establish a lunar outpost.

China’s lunar missions don’t operate in a vacuum (well, technically they do), but the point here is that China’s exploration efforts are advancing alongside a parallel effort by the United States, NASA and about three dozen partners under the auspices of Artemis. program.

Can NASA compete?

After decades of focusing its exploration efforts elsewhere, NASA finally returned to the Moon about seven years ago. It has since worked alongside the commercial space industry to develop a plan for a sustainable return to the lunar surface.

From the outside, China’s lunar program appears to be ahead. It is difficult to argue with the series of successes of the Chang’e lunar program and the unprecedented landing on the far side of the Moon. If Chang’e-6 is successful, it will be another blow in favor of China’s lunar program.

But it must be recognized that NASA is not simply seeking to replicate the glories of its Apollo lunar program in the 1960s and early 1970s. China’s first lunar mission with astronauts, for example, aims to take two taikonauts to the Moon for a few hours. The vehicles will be completely expendable, as rockets and Apollo spacecraft were more than half a century ago.

NASA is taking a different approach, working with industry to develop a fleet of commercial cargo landers, like the successful Intuitive Machines model. Odysseus mission earlier this year, as well as larger human landers built by SpaceX and Blue Origin. This overall “architecture” is much more complex and requires countless launches to refuel spacecraft in orbit. It will probably take several more years to get to the first lunar landing missions, either later this decade or in the early 2030s. But if NASA persists and succeeds in this approach, it will open a highway to the Moon like only you could dream during the Apollo era. Let’s imagine a flotilla of spaceships going to and from the Moon. That’s the vision.

So it’s a competition between China’s adoption of a traditional approach and NASA’s efforts to lead the way to some kind of new future. Watching this lunar competition unfold over the next decade will be one of the most fascinating stories to follow.