China reveals lunar lander, launches satellites, and conducts a spacewalk

China reveals lunar lander, launches satellites, and conducts a spacewalk

China remained busy last week, launching a new set of Tianhui-6 satellites into space while detailing plans for their first lunar missions in 2030. Furthermore, a new modification to the Chang Zheng rocket could affect 5B and reduce the chances of an uncontrolled. re-entry Finally, an EVA was conducted on the Tiangong Space Station, where China changed communication techniques during the EVA.

Launch of Tianhui-6 A/B

China launched the Tianhui-6 A/B mission from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center (TSLC) aboard a Chang Zheng 4C rocket on Thursday, March 9 at 22:41 UTC. The Tianhui-6 twin satellites will be used for geographic mapping, land resource surveys, scientific experiments, and more.

Tianhui translates to “sky-drawing” and is a series of unclassified cartography satellites operated by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CAST). In the mission patch featuring the dolphin, there is some speculation that the satellites may be related to ocean tracking and mapping. CAST DFHSat, a subordinate company of CAST, is listed as a manufacturer of satellites.

The two satellites were launched into an 888×880 km orbit with an inclination of 99 degrees. It was later confirmed that the exact lift-off time was 22:41 UTC.

The Chang Zheng 4C (Long March 4C) rocket was used for this mission. The CZ-4C features three stages and can lift 4,200 kg to a low Earth orbit (LEO) and 2,800 kg to a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). Its first stage engine was the YF-21C, the same engine used in the Chang Zheng 2, Chang Zheng 3, and Chang Zheng 4 vehicles.

China unveils Moon Lander

As part of a space exhibition at the National Museum of China, China unveiled its next-generation lunar lander, which is expected to carry the first Chinese astronauts to the lunar surface around 2030.

The spacecraft will reach the surface with the help of a propulsion stage, which will reduce most of the lander’s speed before landing, which will be done by the lander itself using the engines integrated into the lander. The lander is currently designed to carry two astronauts to the surface of the moon.

Chinese Moon lander and orbiter, with the Chang Zheng 10 rocket in the background. (Credit: CMS)

Initially, the length of these Chinese lunar missions will only be a few hours to demonstrate mission technologies. Subsequent missions are expected to be of longer duration, eventually leading to long-duration surface missions.

At the end of the mission’s surface activities, the lunar lander will take the astronauts back to space. A newly designed spacecraft will wait for the crew in orbit, eventually bringing them back to Earth. This spacecraft has already seen significant hardware testing, with a prototype launched on a Chang Zheng 7 rocket in 2016 and a second test flight of the “next-generation crewed spacecraft test vehicle” and the “flexible inflatable cargo re -entry capsule test capsule” on a Chang Zheng 5B in 2020. Both tests appeared to be successful, validating the technology for potential future lunar missions.

Furthermore, the Chinese lunar program includes the potential for a Chinese lunar space station and other robotic Lunar exploration missions.

The Upcoming Super-Heavy Rocket That’s Finally Named

Previously referred to simply as the “921 rocket,” the “next Generation crewed launch vehicle,” or the “Chang Zheng 5 variant,” China’s upcoming super-heavy lift rocket, set to carry the country’s first astronauts to the Moon, is finally received its name.

The super heavy-lift launch vehicle, featuring three Chang Zheng 5 center cores, will be called Chang Zheng 10. It is a 5-meter diameter rocket powered by seven YF-100K engines in each core, carrying the thrust of all three cores at 26.25 mN at lift. The CZ-10 will stand approximately 90 meters tall and have a mass of 2,187 metric tons. Overall, the rocket will feature three stages, with the second stage powered by two vacuum-optimized YF-100M engines and the third stage featuring three YF-75E hydrogen engines.

Model of the CZ-10 (second rocket from left) and CZ-9 (second rocket from right) at the Zhuhai Airshow. (Credit: CASC)

At the 2022 Zhuhai Airshow, a model of the CZ-10 was presented, showing the current rocket design. The main purpose of the rocket is to enable China to lift 25 tons of cargo to the Moon with each launch. Chang Zheng 10’s debut flight is currently scheduled for 2027.

After Chang Zheng 10, China plans to build a larger rocket with reusable firsT stage called Chang Zheng 9. Dr. Long Lehao, the rocket’s chief designer, recently briefed the public about the vehicle’s design and development. The updated design sees another engine switch, which comes after many previous methane and RP-1 engine swaps. So far, the rocket features 30 200-ton methalox engines in its first stage.

A Chang Zheng 9 propellant test tank. (Credit: CALT)

Overall, the rocket is 114m tall in its current design, with a diameter of 10.6 meters. The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) recently unveiled its first 10-meter diameter propellant tank, paving the way for the technology and construction techniques needed to develop the CZ-9.

While China’s first efforts to land on the Moon mostly used the CZ-10, the CZ-9 may come later to reduce the cost of lunar missions and to enable the launch of heavier payloads to the Moon , such as a planned lunar station. The CZ-9 is not expected to debut before the 2030s.

Amended Chinese Commercial Launch License

In a regulatory change to commercial launch licenses, China’s National Defense Administration has updated its requirements regarding deorbiting rocket stages. In the new regulation, a Chinese commercial launch vehicle has to deorbit the final sub-stage of a launch vehicle after passivation and other steps. This could influence future launches of the Chang Zheng 5B rocket, which has seen a significant push from international partners, as its sustainer stage remains in very low LEO after separation, leading to its uncontrolled re-entry in days later.

CASC previously confirmed that Chang Zheng 5B will be upgraded with the Yuanzheng-2 boost stage to enable launch in the 2nd half of 2023. This may be related to a Chinese internet constellation similar to SpaceX Starlink or Project Kuiper of Amazon. It remains to be seen how China will deal with the de-orbiting of the CZ-5B stage.

Chinese EVA conducted at Tiangong Space Station

Aboard the Chinese Tiangong Space Station in LEO, the Shenzhou-15 crew recently performed their second spacewalk. However, China did not provide detailed information about this spacewalk, including the start time, end time, or length of the spacewalk, making the purpose of the spacewalk a mystery. Currently, speculation suggests that the spacewalk was conducted around or on Feb. 28.

Taikonauts Fei Junlong and Zhang Lu were the two astronauts who performed the spacewalk, while Deng Qingming supported the spacewalk with the help of a robotic arm from inside the Tianhe Core Module.

Deng Qingming assists the spacewalk from inside the station. (Credit: CMS)

The secret of this spacewalk is unusual compared to previous Tiangong spacewalks. In the past, China has released videos and detailed information about spacewalks, such as the elements installed and the duration of the spacewalk. It is unclear why this practice was discontinued for this event.

(Lead image: Liftoff of CZ-4C. Credit: CASC)