China’s Chang’e-3 may leave for the Moon in 2013

The three major Asian space powers — China, Japan and India — are entering the next phase of their lunar exploration.

The three nations have already successfully despatched lunar probes that photographed and studied Earth’s natural satellite from space. Now, all three want to send an orbiter that will circle the Moon as well as a lander that will gently settle on its surface and release a rover that will roam about.

South Korea, which is creating its own launch capability, too seems to have similar ambitions.

Media reports have quoted Chinese space officials as saying that the Chang’e-3 could leave for the Moon in 2013.

Addressing a press conference here on Saturday during an international gathering of scientists involved in space-related research, K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, said India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission could be on its way in 2014.

Although M. Annadurai, project director of Chandrayaan-2, was scheduled to give a talk about the mission at a session of the scientific assembly of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) on Sunday, the presentation was cancelled.

There was, however, a talk about Japan’s Selene-2 landing mission to Moon by Tatsuaki Okada of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science.

The mission involved sending a 700 kg-orbiter along with a lander weighing about 1,000 kg. It would also carry a 100 kg rover, said Dr. Okada. The lander and rover were being designed for a mission lasting two weeks. The orbiter could operate for about a year.

Some 70 landing sites were proposed by various research groups, he noted. These had been whittled down to 11, all of which were in the Moon’s mid-latitudes (from 60 degrees south to 60 degrees north) on the nearside that faces Earth.

(In contrast, India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission planners would like to land near the lunar poles where water ice could have accumulated.)

South Korea proposed an analytical instrument that could be carried on Japan’s Selene-2 rover, said Kyeong Ja Kim of the Korea Institute of Geosciences and Mineral Resources. The country also had aspirations of launching an orbiter-lander mission to the Moon around 2023.

China plans to bring lunar soil and rock samples back to Earth for analysis. Some reports suggest that Chang’e-5 could be launched around 2017.

Japan too is considering a follow-on sample-return mission, according to Dr. Okada. The Selene-3 launch could take place in the early 2020s, he told reporters.

China has begun examining the possibilities of sending its astronauts to the Moon.

But no firm plans have yet been made and the goal of its human spaceflight programme remains the establishment of a large space station about a decade from now.

If Japan sent astronauts to the Moon, it would be in close cooperation with the U.S., as was done in the case of the International Space Station, said Dr. Okada.

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