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Cosmic Space

Russia and China make a deal for joint moon base

Russian and Chinese space officials say they’ll cooperate on the creation of a moon base known as the International Lunar Research Station — a move that could pose a challenge to NASA’s Artemis program for lunar exploration.

The memorandum of understanding for the project was signed today by Roscosmos’ director general, Dmitry Rogozin; and by Zhang Kejian, head of the China National Space Administration. The signing ceremony was conducted by videoconference.

In a statement, Roscosmos said the station will offer “open access to all interested countries and international partners, with the aim of strengthening scientific research interaction, promoting research and using outer space for peaceful purposes in the interests of all humankind.”

CNSA issued a similar statement, saying that the ILRS would be a “comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or lunar orbit.” Research projects will focus on lunar exploration and utilization, moon-based observations, basic scientific studies and technical tests.

Today’s reports from China and Russia didn’t specify the time frame for building the base, but last year, Chinese officials talked about building up the ILRS in the moon’s south polar region over the course of the 2020s and 2030s, with long-term habitation by 2045.

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Cosmic Space

China’s Mars probe enters orbit, scoring another first

For the second time this week, a spacefaring nation put its first robotic probe in Martian orbit.

Today it was China’s turn: After a seven-month, 300 million-mile cruise, China’s Tianwen-1 probe executed a 15-minute firing of its main engine, putting it into an elliptical orbit that comes as near as 250 miles (400 kilometers) to the surface of Mars every 10 days.

Tianwen-1’s success came less than 24 hours after the United Arab Emirates’ Hope spacecraft began orbiting the Red Planet.

Both nations have sent probes into space before, and China has put three probes on the surface of the moon. One of China’s moon probes even returned lunar samples to Earth. But these were the first successful Mars missions for each country. Only four other spacefaring powers — the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency and India — have put spacecraft into Martian orbit. Officials at NASA and ESA were among those tweeting their congratulations today.

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Universe Today

Chinese probe delivers moon samples to Earth

A Chinese probe has delivered the first samples to be collected from the moon in more than 40 years, and its mission isn’t done yet.

The Chang’e-5 sample return capsule floated down to the snowy plains of Inner Mongolia, capping an odyssey that began less than a month ago with the launch of a nine-ton spacecraft from south China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center.

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Universe Today

Robotic Chinese spacecraft dock in lunar orbit

Two robotic Chinese spacecraft have docked in lunar orbit for the first time ever, in preparation for sending samples from the Moon to Earth.

The lunar ascent module for China’s Chang’e-5 mission was captured by the metal claws of the mission’s orbiter at 5:42 a.m. Beijing time Dec. 6 (1:42 p.m. PT Dec. 5), the China National Space Administration reported.

Over the half-hour that followed, a canister containing lunar material was safely transferred to the orbiter’s attached Earth-return capsule. In the days ahead, the ascent module will be jettisoned, and the orbiter will fire its thrusters to carry the return capsule back toward Earth.

If all proceeds according to plan, the orbiter will drop off the return capsule for its descent to Inner Mongolia sometime around Dec. 16, with the exact timing dependent on the mission team’s analysis of the required trajectory. That would mark the first return of fresh material from the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 spacecraft accomplished the feat back in 1976.

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Universe Today

Chinese probe lifts off from the moon with a full load

For the first time in more than 40 years, a robotic spacecraft has blasted off from the moon – and for the first time ever, it’s a Chinese spacecraft, carrying precious lunar samples back to Earth.

The ascent vehicle for the Chang’e-5 mission fired its engine and rose a region called Oceanus Procellarum at 7:10 a.m. PT (11:10 p.m. Beijing time) today, the China National Space Administration’s China Lunar Exploration Project reported.

Imagery sent back from the moon provided a view of the blastoff from ground zero. It was the first successful lunar launch since the Soviet Luna 24 probe took off during a sample return mission in 1976.

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Universe Today

Here’s what China’s Chang’e-5 moon probe is seeing

China’s Chang’e-5 robotic moon lander is due to spend only two days collecting samples of lunar rock and soil before it sends its shipment on its way back to Earth, but it’s making the most of the time.

Just hours after landing on Dec. 1, the probe started using its robotic scoop and drill to dig up material at Mons Rümker, a lava dome in a region called Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms.

It’s also been sending back pictures and video, including this stunning view of the final minutes before touchdown. Watch how the camera tips straight down to focus on the target spot for the lander:

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Universe Today

Chinese probe lands on the moon to bring back dirt

For the third time in seven years, a Chinese robotic spacecraft has landed on the Moon — but now things will get really interesting: If the Chang’e-5 mission succeeds, the probe will deliver fresh samples from the moon to Earth for the first time in 44 years.

Chang’e-5’s paired lander and ascent vehicle touched down in a lunar region known as Oceanus Procellarium, near Mons Rümker, today at 11:13 p.m. Beijing time (7:13 a.m. PT). The landing came eight days after the 9-ton spacecraft was launched from Wenchang Space Launch Center, and three days after the craft settled into lunar orbit.

In preparation for touchdown, the lander and ascent vehicle separated from its orbiter and descended to the surface. Chinese state-run television tracked the descent, climaxing with what appeared to be a close-up view of the lunar surface from a camera aboard the lander. China’s Xinhua news service confirmed the landing minutes later.

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Cosmic Space

China launches mission to bring back moon samples

China launched a robotic probe today on a mission that could bring back the first samples of moon rocks and dirt in more than 40 years.

The Chang’e-5 spacecraft was sent into space from south China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center at 4:30 a.m. local time Nov. 24 (12:30 p.m. PT Nov. 23) atop a heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket.

Like China’s previous lunar probes, Chang’e-5 is named after a moon goddess in Chinese mythology. This probe consists of an orbiter, a lander, an ascent vehicle and a re-entry capsule.

The 9-ton craft went into an Earth-moon transfer trajectory that should get it to lunar orbit in five days. On Nov. 29 or so, the paired lander and ascent vehicle are expected to separate from the orbiter and touch down on a lava dome known as Mons Rümker.

The mound is thought to contain rocks that formed relatively recently in geological terms — 1.2 billion years ago. Samples from such a region could yield the youngest rocks ever brought back from the moon, and shed new light on recent phases of lunar geology.

Chang’e-5’s lander is designed to study its surroundings with cameras and scientific instruments, including a ground-penetrating radar and a spectrometer. The most important scientific payloads are a mechanical scoop and a drill that can go 7 feet beneath the surface.

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Cosmic Space

China launches Mars probe amid big questions

China’s most advanced space probe — Tianwen-1, whose name means “Heavenly Questions” — is on its way to Mars, beginning a quest that will be riddled with questions.

Some of those questions are definitely heavenly in nature: How are reservoirs of potentially precious water ice distributed beneath the Martian surface? Where are the best places to find traces of past life, or to shelter future explorers?

But the biggest question about Tianwen-1 is more down to Earth: Can the Chinese actually pull this off?

“Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter. No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way,” mission team leaders wrote last week in Nature Astronomy. “If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.”

The mission’s start looked auspicious, although it lacked the level of official reportage that Western space enthusiasts are used to.

A video stream from Douyu.com showed China’s Long March 5 rocket sending the 5-ton probe skyward from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island at 12:41 p.m. local time July 23 (9:41 p.m. PT July 22). China’s official Xinhua news agency confirmed the launch in a bulletin issued a couple of minutes later.

The plan calls for Tianwen-1 to make a seven-month cruise to Mars and enter a polar elliptical orbit next February.

Tianwen-1 is one of three Mars probes being launched this summer to take advantage of a favorable celestial alignment that comes around only every 26 months. The other two spacecraft are the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, which was launched earlier this week; and NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due for liftoff next week.

NASA’s recent Mars missions may make the interplanetary trip look easy. But over the past five decades, trips to the Red Planet have been so fraught with risks that mission managers used to joke darkly about a “Great Galactic Ghoul” who gobbled spacecraft bound for Mars.

Only NASA and the Soviet Union have successfully landed probes on Mars, and the Soviet Mars 3 lander lasted just 110 seconds on the ground before giving up the ghost in 1971.

Several NASA probes have gone astray, including Mars Observer in 1993 as well as Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999. China has fallen victim to the ghoul’s grip as well: Its first Mars probe, a piggyback orbiter known as Yinghuo-1, was lost when the Russian spacecraft it was riding on, Phobos-Grunt, failed to get out of Earth orbit after its launch in 2011 and eventually fell into the Pacific.

Since that failure, China’s robotic space program has had much more success: The Chang’e-3 mission put a rover on the lunar surface in 2013, and a little more than five years later, Chang’e-4 became the world’s first mission to explore the moon’s far side at ground level.

Tianwen-1’s agenda is similarly ambitious: The orbiter is meant to conduct a global high-resolution survey of Mars over the course of a full Martian year, or nearly two Earth years. Two or three months after entering Martian orbit, a lander will unhook from the orbiter, descend through the atmosphere and make a soft landing in Utopia Planitia with the aid of a parachute, retrorockets and airbags.

If that touchdown is successful, the lander will disgorge a 500-pound rover that’s bristling with six scientific instruments — including two cameras, a meteorology station, a magnetometer, a surface composition analyzer and a ground-penetrating radar that could map those hidden concentrations of subsurface water ice.

Mars’ reservoirs of water ice would be crucial for sustaining human exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. In the past, Chinese experts have talked about sending astronauts there sometime after 2040. But that’s an issue for another day. In the meantime, China — and the rest of the world’s spacefaring nations — will have to deal with lots of slightly less lofty heavenly questions.

Update for 1:25 a.m. PT July 23: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wished Tianwen-1 safe travels in a tweet:

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Cosmic Space

It’s the summer of Mars: Check your Red Planet IQ

It’s been more than two years since the most recent launch to Mars, but traffic to the Red Planet is due to pick up dramatically in the next couple of weeks.

The United Arab Emirates could start things off as soon as Sunday (July 19) with the launch of its first-ever interplanetary probe, the Hope orbiter. Liftoff from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center is set for as early as 5:58 p.m. ET (1:58 a.m. UAE time July 20), with a Japanese H-2A rocket providing the ride.

The UAE is an up-and-comer in the space business, as evidenced by last year’s first space mission by an Emirati astronaut. This Mars mission celebrates the Emirates’ 50th anniversary as a nation, and is being carried out by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in collaboration with a variety of U.S. research institutions.

The car-sized Hope orbiter is designed to provide a weather-satellite style view of the Martian atmosphere over the course of its two-year-long primary mission. Hope’s launch has been delayed a couple of times due to unfavorable weather in Japan, but once liftoff takes place, it should be clear sailing to orbital insertion at Mars next February.

China is next up with its Tianwen-1 orbiter, lander and rover. The spacecraft should be sent on its way from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site atop a Long March 5 rocket sometime next week.

Assuming all goes as advertised, Tianwen-1’s landing platform will touch down on a Martian plain known as Utopia Planitia next February. The rover will roll off the platform, take pictures, analyze rock samples and use a radar instrument to hunt for pockets of subsurface water.

Meanwhile, the orbiter will be snapping high-resolution pictures from above and serving as a communications relay. Tianwen (which means “Questioning the Heavens”) is China’s first Mars mission and could lay the groundwork for a sample return mission in the late 2020s.

NASA is also preparing for a sample return mission. On July 30, it’s due to launch the Mars Perseverance rover from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

Perseverance takes advantage of the same basic chassis design and plutonium-powered batteries used for the Curiosity rover, which is still in operation eight years after landing on Mars. But its instruments are optimized to look for the chemical signs of ancient microbial life.

After the one-ton, SUV-sized rover makes its February touchdown in Jezero Crater, one of its primary tasks will be to collect promising samples of Martian rock and soil for eventual return to Earth. Perseverance is also packing a mini-helicopter called Ingenuity, which could become the first powered aircraft to fly on another planet.

There’s a reason why all these spacecraft are due for takeoff this summer, heading for a landing next February. Because of the orbital relationship between Earth and Mars, the optimal opportunity for a trip to the Red Planet comes every 26 months.

NASA’s Mars InSight lander took advantage of the 2018 opportunity, and now it’s time once again for Mars-bound missions to lift off — or wait for the next turn in 2022.

There’ll be a lot more on the Red Planet menu in the next few weeks, and this Mars IQ test should serve as an appetizer. Are you a space cadet or a Mars commander? If you’ve read this story, you should get at least the first quiz question right…