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China's First Lunar Return Mission A Stunning Success
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Nov 01, 2014

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The successful return of China's first circumlunar spacecraft has been somewhat downplayed by the media. Part of this is sadly due to the tragic loss of Space Ship Two and the death of a pilot that occurred just hours before this capsule landed.

Despite this, the mission should be celebrated for a number of achievements. China has now become the first Asian nation to recover a spacecraft from the Moon, and only the third nation in the world to do so. The mission has proven the successful design of a re-entry system designed for the fast velocity of a return from deep space. It has also demonstrated precise navigation and attitude control to place the re-entry capsule on the right trajectory.

The mission has also carried out China's first "skip" re-entry, where the capsule briefly skips out of the atmosphere before making its final plunge. This evens out the deceleration and heating imposed on the capsule.

The mission also puts China's robotic lunar exploration back on track, after the problems experienced by the Yutu Moon rover. China has now effectively demonstrated most of the critical systems and technologies it will need for the difficult robotic sample-return missions it plans for the future. It seems reasonable to expect that China will not experience much of a delay in carrying out the first flight, which should occur in or near 2017.

The landing of the capsule marks the end of the main goals of this mission, and that alone is enough to make the entire flight worthwhile. But the mission continues. The boxy spacecraft "bus" that carried the capsule to the Moon and back is still functioning.

It's in a highly elongated Earth orbit, awaiting further tasks. Exactly what China plans to do with it remains to be seen. The spacecraft could be used to explore the particles and fields environment of cislunar space, as the Earth's magnetic field gradually diminishes with distance.

It could also be sent to explore some of the Lagrangian points in the Earth-Moon system. These are five imaginary points in space where the gravitational points of these two worlds are in equilibrium, and some of them can serve as "anchor points" for orbiting spacecraft.

These areas have barely been explored by spacecraft, and they should be investigated further for any debris that could be lurking in these places. Alternatively, China could send the spacecraft on a series of tricky gravity-assist maneuvers to gain free energy from the Moon, changing its trajectory. Such moves could lead to more spacecraft making complex but fuel-efficient flights to the Moon in the future. This analyst does not believe that the spacecraft will be sent on any interplanetary trajectories.

The capsule was an experiment in its own right, but the capsule is also believed to have contained some rudimentary experiments. These were probably in the form of biological specimens, especially plant seeds.

These have been exposed to the high-radiation environment of deep space, which is far more dangerous than low Earth orbit. They were not in deep space for long, but the length of their exposure mimics the time interval that human astronauts will experience on lunar mission.

This leads to the biggest issue. The technology demonstrated on this mission clearly (if unofficially) brings China closer to achieving the goal of sending Chinese astronauts to the Moon. Again, it must be noted that the re-entry capsule used on this mission was a scale replica of the Shenzhou astronaut capsule.

This is hardly a coincidence! The first Chinese astronauts (or single astronaut) to fly to the Moon will probably fly a short and simple circumlunar mission, just like this spacecraft.

No orbit, no landing. But it will still be a flight to the Moon and back. China is developing powerful rockets that would be capable of sending a modified Shenzhou spacecraft directly to the Moon. It won't be long before the capability for such a mission will be in China's grasp.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has written for since 1999. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.

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China completes first mission to moon and back
Beijing (AFP) Nov 01, 2014
China completed its first return mission to the moon early Saturday with the successful re-entry and landing of an unmanned probe, state media reported, in the latest step forward for Beijing's ambitious space programme. The probe landed safely in northern China's Inner Mongolia region, state news agency Xinhua said, citing the Beijing Aerospace Control Center. Xinhua said the probe ... read more

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