Soon, a rocket will launch a Chinese spacecraft to the Moon and back. It’s the first time that China has attempted this long and perilous journey. It should be a great achievement for the nation, worthy of extensive publicity. Ironically, this mission has been shrouded in more obscurity than the “secret” X-37B spaceplane operated by the US Air Force, which even had its re-entry pre-announced and covered extensively on video.
It would seem that Chinese President Xi Jinping is tightening the screws on “state secrets” even more than he did in the past. Censorship of China’s space program increased soon after he took office, and the situation seems to have deteriorated even further. But there could be other reasons why this specific mission is being treated with such caution by China’s state media.
Let’s get through some technical details. The spacecraft will probably not enter orbit around the Moon, despite precise statements made in the Chinese media that previously suggested this. It’s flying a free-return trajectory that should take slightly over a week to return home.
The capsule to be used in this mission is a scale model of the descent module used on the Shenzhou astronaut-carrying spacecraft. The “service module” for the spacecraft is a boxy satellite bus based on the Chang’e lunar orbiter design. The spacecraft will be launched by a Long March 3C rocket, similar to the one used for the last Chang’e orbiter launch.
The lack of discussion hints at a sensitive agenda for the mission. Officially, this is a test of a capsule to be used in a future robot sample-return mission to the Moon. China has made no secret of its plans to fly two such missions within a decade. But the type of capsule used in this mission is suspicious. Why does it have to be a replica of China’s astronaut capsule?
This analyst feels that the mission is yet further evidence of plans for launching Chinese astronauts to the Moon in the future. The first astronauts to be launched there will probably fly a circumlunar trajectory, similar to this mission.
They will not land on the Moon and they will not even orbit the Moon. But they will go to the Moon and back. That’s something America hasn’t done in more than 40 years, and something Russia has never done at all. The propaganda value of such a mission would be enormous!
Let’s see how China deals with this increasingly enigmatic space mission. There’s more going on than a cursory glance would suggest!