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China Roundup: Chang’e 6 lands on the Moon, and record-breaking EVA

NASAChina Roundup: Chang’e 6 lands on the Moon, and record-breaking EVA

China’s Chang’e 6 landed on and sampled the far side of the Moon while the Shenzhou-18 crew performed a record-breaking spacewalk at the Tiangong Space Station. Additionally, 10 more rockets were launched from the country in the last few weeks.

Chang’e 6 lands on the far side of the Moon

China’s sixth uncrewed lunar exploration mission, Chang’e 6, was launched on a Chang Zheng 5 from the Wenchang Space Launch Site in China. Liftoff occurred on May 3 at 09:27 UTC.

The Chang’e 6 vehicle consists of four main parts: the orbiter, the lander, the ascent vehicle, and the sample return capsule. In addition to Chinese science payloads, the mission features multiple international contributions. The lander is outfitted with a French and a Swedish science instrument as well as two Italian laser retro-reflectors. Moreover, the spacecraft released a Pakistani CubeSat called ICUBE-Q a few days after launch.

After separating from the orbiter in late May, the lander touched down in the Apollo Basin on the far side of the Moon on June 1 at 22:23 UTC.  Once on the Moon, the lander took samples and deployed a previously undisclosed mini rover which took a photo of the lander on the lunar surface.

Two days after landing, the ascent vehicle launched from the Moon on its way back to the orbiter, with liftoff on June 3 at 23:38 UTC.  The two docked in lunar orbit on June 6 at 06:48 UTC. The ascent spacecraft then transferred the collected sample to the return capsule shortly afterward.

The next step in the mission timeline is for the return capsule to start its journey back to Earth. Reentry and landing are currently scheduled for June 25.

Tiangong crew rotation and record-breaking spacewalk

At the end of April, a crew rotation took place at the Tiangong Space Station. On April 25 at 12:59 UTC, a Chang Zheng 2F lifted the three-person Shenzhou-18 crew into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The spacecraft arrived and docked at the space station about 6.5 hours later at 19:37 UTC.

Shenzhou-18’s crew consists of commander Ye Guangfu, who previously flew on Shenzhou-13. The two other crew members, operator Li Cong and system operator Li Guangsu, also joined the mission for their first space flight.

A few days after Shenzhou-18’s arrival, the previous crew boarded their spacecraft for departure. Shenzhou-17 undocked from Tiangong on April 30 at 00:43 UTC and touched down in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region about nine hours later.

The landing marked the end of a 187-day mission for the crew. Shenzhou-17 commander Tang Hongbo finished his second spaceflight, with his first being Shenzhou-12. The mission’s operator, Tang Shengjie, and system operator, Jiang Xinlin, both completed their first spaceflight.

Roughly a month after they arrived at the Tiangong Space Station, two of the Shenzhou-18 crew members performed a record-breaking spacewalk. The extravehicular activity (EVA) was conducted on May 28, and at 8.5 hours was the country’s 15th and longest spacewalk to date. During the EVA, Ye Guangfu and Li Guangsu performed multiple tasks including installing space debris protection devices and equipment inspections.

Three Gushenxing-1 launches in rapid succession

Galactic Energy launched its light-lift Gushenxing-1 (Ceres 1) rocket three times in eight days. The first mission, named Beautiful World, used the Gushenxing-1S which launches from a sea launch platform. It lifted off on May 29 at 08:12 UTC, carrying four Tianqi Internet of Things (IoT) satellites into low-Earth orbit.

The rocket was launched from the Dongfang Hangtiangang barge in the coastal waters of the Shandong province in China, a few kilometers from the city of Rizhao. This was Gushenxing-1’s 12th total mission and the first of the year.

The second Gushenxing-1 launch took place only a day later on May 30 at 23:39 UTC. The flight lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, carrying five satellites into a Sun-synchronous orbit on a rideshare mission dubbed Heroes. The payloads include three meteorological observation satellites for the Yunyao-1 constellation and two satellites for testing on-orbit laser communications.

A week later, on June 6 at 05:00 UTC, another Gushenxing-1 was launched from Jiuquan. This time, it lifted three Earth-observation satellites into Sun-synchronous orbit. The mission, codenamed Love on Top, also carried the company’s Eros orbital test platform.

Eros is an upgraded version of the rocket’s upper stage, designed to stay in orbit and function as an on-orbit test platform for new devices, technologies, and even biological experiments. This time, Eros will test an electric thruster in orbit.

Chang Zheng 3B/E | Paksat MM1(R)

A Chang Zheng 3B/E launched the Paksat MM1(R) satellite on May 30 at 12:12 UTC as part of a collaboration between China and Pakistan. The satellite was developed and built by China for the Pakistan Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), which also contributed some instruments to demonstrate its satellite development capabilities.

The spacecraft is set to replace Paksat MM1, formerly known as AsiaSat 4, which SUPARCO has leased and operated since 2018. Paksat MM1(R) will offer communication services to Pakistan and the surrounding region for a designed lifespan of 15 years.

Paksat MM1(R) was launched into a geostationary transfer orbit from Launch Complex 2 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China.

Kuaizhou-11 | Four satellites

On May 21 at 04:15 UTC, a Kuaizhou-11 launched four satellites into Sun-synchronous orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Among the payloads was Wuhan-1, which is claimed to be the country’s first commercial infrared meteorological satellite. This was the third flight — and second successful flight — of the solid-fueled rocket developed by ExPace, a subsidiary of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC).

Chang Zheng 2D | Beijing 3C 1-4

Carrying four satellites, a Chang Zheng 2D lifted off from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center on May 20 at 03:06 UTC. The payloads were the first four Earth-observation satellites of the Beijing 3C constellation for Twenty First Century Aerospace Technology (21AT).

This launch was notable because the rocket’s first stage featured a set of grid fins. With these, the stage performed a controlled reentry and achieved precise control of its final impact location to avoid populated areas.

Chang Zheng 4C | Shiyan 23

A Chang Zheng 4C launched the Shiyan 23 satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit on May 11 at 23:43 UTC for the purpose of “space environment detection.” Due to the classified nature of the mission, few details were revealed. The launch was conducted from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Chang Zheng 3B/E | Zhihui Tianwang-1 01

Another Chang Zheng 3B/E launched two satellites into a medium-Earth transfer orbit at 01:43 UTC on May 9 from Launch Complex 2 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. At least one of the satellites was reported to have arrived at its 20,00 0 km target orbit on May 27.

The two Zhihui Tianwang-1 01 satellites are experimental communications satellites, the country’s first in medium-Earth orbit and marking the beginning of a larger constellation. The satellites will perform communications tests with other satellites in low-Earth orbit and China’s Antarctic research stations.

Chang Zheng 6C | Maiden Flight

On May 7, a new rocket launched for the first time. The Chang Zheng 6C lifted off from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center at 03:21 UTC, carrying four satellites into a Sun-synchronous orbit. The latest addition to the Chang Zheng 6 (CZ-6) family can either be considered a dual-engine variant of the CZ-6 or a shorter, single-stick version of the CZ-6A. The new rocket can lift 4,500 kg to a low-Earth orbit or 2,000 kg to a 700 km Sun-synchronous orbit.

The rocket’s first payload included a synthetic-aperture radar satellite called Haiwangxing-01 — the first of a constellation of 36. Additionally, CZ-6C lifted an X-band radar satellite called Zhixing-1C and two optical imaging satellites.

Chang Zheng 2D | Yaogan 42-02

On April 20 at 23:45 UTC, a Chang Zheng 2D launched from Launch Complex 3 of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. The rocket carried a highly classified military remote-sensing satellite into low-Earth orbit. Very little is known about the secretive payload and its mission.

(Lead image: The Chang’e 6 lander on the lunar surface, imaged by the lander’s mini rover. Credit: CNSA/CLEP)

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