China plans 3 moon missions to investigate a potential new source of energy

The country's space agency aims to overtake NASA with its ongoing Chang'e lunar program and future crewed missions to Mars.
Chris Young
3D illustration of an astronaut setting a Chinese flag on the Moon.
3D illustration of an astronaut setting a Chinese flag on the Moon.


China announced its plans to launch three new uncrewed missions to the Moon after the discovery of a new lunar mineral that could be harvested as an energy source in the future, a report from Bloomberg reveals.

China's National Space Administration announced on Saturday, September 10, that it was given the green light to start planning the launch of three new orbiters to the Moon over the next decade. The new missions will form a part of the country's ongoing Chang'e lunar program.

The announcement was made only a day after China became the third country in history to discover a new lunar mineral. As per the Chinese state-run media outlet The Global Times, the new mineral has been dubbed Changesite-(Y). Scientists discovered it in samples retrieved by the Chang'e-5 mission in 2020. The Global Times described it as a "phosphate mineral in columnar crystal" found in lunar rock particles.

Analysis of the samples showed that Changesite-(Y) contains the isotope helium-3, which is considered to be a potentially valuable energy source for the future.

China's space agency aims to compete with NASA

Both NASA and China are investigating the south pole for potential moon mining sites. The latter aims to build a research station with Russia in that region of the lunar surface. China and Russia also have an agreement to build a lunar orbital station after Russia opted out of joining NASA's own lunar Gateway program last year.

The U.S. space agency, meanwhile, has canceled two recent attempts to launch its Space Launch System (SLS) to the Moon to kickstart its Artemis program.

Artemis I will send an uncrewed capsule around the Moon and back, Artemis II will carry out the same journey with astronauts aboard, and Artemis III will send humans to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

China's Chang'e missions break new ground

China's latest advances in space exploration may put added pressure on NASA to get its Artemis program off the ground, with the construction of SLS criticized for going over budget and for utilizing non-reusable technology.

The launch of SLS is currently expected to take place in October following a hydrogen leak issue during NASA's latest launch attempt.

China is close to completing its Tiangong orbital space station, it landed its Zhurong rover on Mars earlier this year, and it also recently became the first country to detect water on the Moon via a probe on the lunar surface.

The Chang'e-5 mission was named after a Moon goddess in Chinese mythology. It is the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program's fifth lunar mission. The mission, which launched on November 23, 2020, aboard a Chinese Long March rocket, is also the country's first sample-return mission to the Moon. China's space agency aims to get samples back from Mars two years before NASA, and the country also wants to beat the U.S. to the red planet by sending humans there as soon as 2033 — though with SpaceX's Starship approaching its first orbital test flight, that outcome is far from being a given.

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