Photos from the Chinese magazine “China Space News” show the assembled lander and rover units undergoing inspections and then being lowered into a thermal vacuum chamber for environmental testing, in preparation for the planned launch in December 2013.
The Chinese space program remains quite secretive, compared to its American or European counterparts. Thanks to the internet, however, photographs printed out in local magazines, like the “China Space News” find their ways to the international community very quickly. The following photos were posted at the forums of nasaspaceflight.com, home of one of the planet's most hardcore base of space nerds.
The photos show the integrated, actual flight hardware of the Chang'e-3 lander and rover. Those robotic explorers will be humanities first attempt to safely land on the Moon after the long hiatus of surface activities since the Luna-24 mission. The rover itself is slightly smaller than the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity and will carry similar instruments: panoramic cameras and and two spectrometers, one operating in the infrared, the other using alpha particles and X-rays. It will not have drills or brushes but it will carry a ground penetrating radar to inspect the composition of the soil and the structure of the crust beneath it.
The rover itself from a Chinese television report. It will have a mast, shorter than on the MERs to hold the panoramic cameras and a robotic arm to position the APXS (Alpha-Particle-X-ray Spectrometer).
The lander, however, is obviously oversized for the ~100 kg weight of the rover. It was designed with a larger payload in mind – the Chang'e-5 sample return mission. (The Chang'e-4 mission will use the upgraded backup of Chang'e-3.) Why send an oversized lander, basically dead weight, up all the way to the Moon, you might ask? The weight overhead is simply not a problem for the Chinese fleet of rockets: the Long March 3B, the most powerful in the family is able to deliver a spacecraft this big to the Moon. On the other hand, Chang'e-5 will require a lander this large: so there is little point in developing two different lander units if one can be used for all missions. However, the combined mass of the Chang'e-5 payload will need the even larger Long March 5 rocket that is still under development.
Technicians lower the hardware into the thermal vacuum chamber. In it the lander and the rover are exposed to environments similar to outer space and the surface of the Moon.
The lander will also feature a large number of scientific instruments: panoramic cameras, a near- and a far-UV telescope, a descent imager and an extensible lunar soil probe. The nominal mission will be one year for the lander and three months for the rover.
Launch is currently scheduled for December 2013. The forum members at nasaspaceflight.com estimated a more precise date: the Sun rises at the target area (Sinus Iridium) around 13-14th, considering a landing date between 15-19th, and the length of the lunar transit (5 days) and the orbital period before descent and landing (10 days), the launch date should fall somewhere around the first days, between the 1st and 5th of December.
There has been some speculation about the capabilities of the lander module beyond the robotic missions. The consensus is now, however, that this lander would be too small for a manned mission – it is quite smaller than the Descent Stage of the the Apollo Lunar Module, and even slightly smaller than the never-flown Soviet LK spacecraft. But it will certainly pave the way towards the first Chinese manned Moon landing.
Image credits: China Space News / China National Space Administration
Source: Emily Lakdawalla, The Planetary Society
Last Updated (Friday, 24 May 2013 13:19)