Chinese Lunar Exploration Program
Zhōngguó Tàn Yuè
Program insignia: a lunar crescent with two footprints at its center. The symbol resembles  [zh], the Chinese character for "Moon".
Program overview
OrganizationChina National Space Administration (CNSA)
PurposeRobotic Moon missions
Program history
Duration2004; 20 years ago (2004)–present
First flightChang'e 1, 24 October 2007, 10:05:04.602 (2007-10-24UTC10:05:04Z) UTC
Last flightChang'e 5, 23 November 2020, 20:30 (2020-11-23UTC20:30Z) UTC
Launch site(s)
Vehicle information
Uncrewed vehicle(s)lunar orbiters, landers, rovers and sample return spacecraft
Launch vehicle(s)

The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP; Chinese: 中国探月; pinyin: Zhōngguó Tànyuè), also known as the Chang'e Project (Chinese: 嫦娥工程; pinyin: Cháng'é Gōngchéng) after the Chinese Moon goddess Chang'e, is an ongoing series of robotic Moon missions by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The program encompasses lunar orbiters, landers, rovers and sample return spacecraft, launched using the Long March series of rockets. A human lunar landing component may have been added to the program, after China publicly announced crewed lunar landing plans by the year 2030 during a conference in July 2023.[1]

The program's launches and flights are monitored by a telemetry, tracking, and command (TT&C) system, which uses 50-meter (160-foot) radio antennas in Beijing and 40-meter (130-foot) antennas in Kunming, Shanghai, and Ürümqi to form a 3,000-kilometer (1,900-mile) VLBI antenna.[2][3] A proprietary ground application system is responsible for downlink data reception.

Ouyang Ziyuan, a geologist, chemical cosmologist, and the program's chief scientist, was among the first to advocate the exploitation not only of known lunar reserves of metals such as titanium, but also of helium-3, an ideal fuel for future nuclear fusion power plants. Ye Peijian serves as the program's chief commander and chief designer.[4][better source needed] Scientist Sun Jiadong is the program's general designer and Sun Zezhou is deputy general designer. The leading program manager is Luan Enjie.[citation needed]

The first spacecraft of the program, the Chang'e 1 lunar orbiter, was launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center on 24 October 2007,[5] having been delayed from the initial planned date of 17–19 April 2007.[6] A second orbiter, Chang'e 2, was launched on 1 October 2010.[7][8] Chang'e 3, which includes a lander and rover, was launched on 1 December 2013 and successfully soft-landed on the Moon on 14 December 2013. Chang'e 4, which includes a lander and rover, was launched on 7 December 2018 and landed on 3 January 2019 in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, on the far side of the Moon. A sample return mission, Chang'e 5, which launched on 23 November 2020 and returned on 16 December in the same year, brought 1,731 g (61.1 oz) of lunar samples back to Earth.[9]

As indicated by the official insignia, the shape of a calligraphic nascent lunar crescent with two human footprints at its center reminiscent of the Chinese character , the Chinese character for "Moon", the ultimate objective of the program is to pave the way for a crewed mission to the Moon. China National Space Administration head Zhang Kejian had announced that China is planning to build a scientific research station on the Moon's south pole "within the next 10 years," (2019–2029).[10]

On 12 July 2023, at the 9th China (International) Commercial Aerospace Forum in Wuhan, Hubei province, Zhang Hailian, a deputy chief designer with the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), publicly introduced a preliminary plan to land two astronauts on the Moon by the year 2030.[1]

Program structure

The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program is divided into four main operational phases, with each mission serving as a technology demonstrator in preparation for future missions. International cooperation in the form of various payloads and a robotic station is invited by China.[11]

Phase I (robotic): Orbital missions

The first phase entailed the launch of two lunar orbiters, and is now effectively complete.

Phase II (robotic): Soft landers/rovers

Chang-e 5 lunar mission's Returner
Before Chang-e 5, no lunar sample-return was conducted in over four decades.

The second phase is ongoing, and incorporates spacecraft capable of soft-landing on the Moon and deploying lunar rovers.

Phase III (robotic): Sample-return

The third phase included a lunar sample-return mission.

Phase IV (robotic): Lunar robotic research station

Phase IV is the development of an autonomous lunar research station near the Moon's south pole.[11][15][16] The Phase IV program entered active development in 2023 following the successful completion of the previous three phases.[17]

Crewed mission phase

See also Mengzhou (spacecraft) and Lanyue lander

In 2019, China was reviewing preliminary studies for a crewed lunar landing mission in the 2030s,[25][26] and possibly building an outpost near the lunar south pole with international cooperation.[11][25]

As of 2023, China's goal is to land astronauts on the Moon by 2030 using the Mengzhou crewed spacecraft and the Lanyue crewed lunar lander.[27][28]

2035 and thereafter: International Moon base and application

In 2021, China and Russia announced they will be building a Moon base together, also formally invited more countries and international organizations to join their International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) project being developed by the two nations,[29] as an alternative to the American Artemis Program.[30] China announced on April 24th the International Lunar Research Station Cooperation Organization (ILRSCO) and will announce the founding member states in June 2023.[31]

List of missions

Conducted missions

  Planned hard landing   Planned soft landing

Launch Date
Launch Vehicle
Orbital Insertion Date Landing Date Return Date Notes
Phase 1
Chang'e 1 24 Oct 2007 Long March 3A 7 Nov 2007 1 Mar 2009 - Lunar orbiter; first Chinese lunar mission. Success -
Chang'e 2 1 Oct 2010 Long March 3C 6 Oct 2010 - - Lunar orbiter; following lunar orbit mission flew extended mission to 4179 Toutatis. Success Success
Phase 2
Chang'e 3 1 Dec 2013 Long March 3B 6 Dec 2013 14 Dec 2013 - Lunar lander and rover; first Chinese lunar landing, landed in Mare Imbrium with Yutu 1. Success Ongoing
Queqiao 1 20 May 2018 Long March 4C 14 Jun 2018 - - Relay satellite located at the Earth-Moon L2 point in order to allow communications with Chang'e 4. Success Ongoing
Chang'e 4 7 Dec 2018 Long March 3B 12 Dec 2018 3 Jan 2019 - Lunar lander and rover; first soft landing on the Far side of the Moon, landed in Von Karman crater with Yutu-2. Success Ongoing
Phase 3
Chang'e 5-T1 23 Oct 2014 Long March 3C 10 Jan 2015 - 31 Oct 2014 Experimental test flight testing technologies ahead of first Lunar sample return; tested return capsule and lunar orbit autonomous rendezvous techniques and other maneuvers. Success Ongoing
Chang'e 5 23 Nov 2020 Long March 5 28 Nov 2020 1 Dec 2020 16 Dec 2020 Lunar orbiter, lander, and sample return; which landed near Mons Rümker and returned 1731g of lunar soil to Earth. The service module made a visit to Lagrange point L1 and also performed a lunar flyby in extended mission.[32] Success Ongoing

Upcoming missions

Mission Launch Date Launch Vehicle Mission Type Notes
Phase 4
Queqiao 2 March 2024 Long March 8 Lunar relay satellite Relay satellite to support communications for the upcoming lunar missions.[18]
Chang'e 6 May 2024 Long March 5 Lunar sample return Lunar orbiter, lander, and sample return; scheduled to land at the South Pole–Aitken basin on the far side of the Moon.[19]
Chang'e 7 2026 Long March 5 Lunar surface survey Lunar orbiter, lander, rover, and mini-flying probe; expected to perform in-depth exploration of the lunar south pole to look for resources.[23]
Chang'e 8 2028 Long March 5 Lunar surface survey Full mission details are currently unknown; will test ISRU and 3D-printing technologies, ahead of future crewed exploration of the Moon.[23]
1st crewed lunar mission 2029-2030 Long March 10 Human landing on lunar surface 2 launches using the Long March 10 to place two astronauts on the lunar surface via the Mengzhou crewed lunar spacecraft and the Lanyue crewed lunar lander.[1]

Key technologies

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Long-range TT&C

See also: Chinese Deep Space Network

The biggest challenge in Phase I of the program was the operation of the TT&C system, because its transmission capability needed sufficient range to communicate with the probes in lunar orbit.[33] China's standard satellite telemetry had a range of 80,000 kilometers (50,000 miles), but the distance between the Moon and the Earth can exceed 400,000 kilometers (250,000 miles) when the Moon is at apogee. In addition, the Chang'e probes had to carry out many attitude maneuvers during their flights to the Moon and during operations in lunar orbit. The distance across China from east to west is 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles),[34] forming another challenge to TT&C continuity. At present, the combination of the TT&C system and the Chinese astronomical observation network has met the needs of the Chang'e program,[35] but only by a small margin.

Environmental adaptability

The complexity of the space environment encountered during the Chang'e missions imposed strict requirements for environmental adaptability and reliability of the probes and their instruments. The high-radiation environment in Earth-Moon space required hardened electronics to prevent electromagnetic damage to spacecraft instruments. The extreme temperature range, from 130 degrees Celsius (266 degrees Fahrenheit) on the side of the spacecraft facing the Sun to −170 degrees Celsius (−274 degrees Fahrenheit) on the side facing away from the Sun, imposed strict requirements for temperature control in the design of the detectors.

Orbit design and flight sequence control

Given the conditions of the three-body system of the Earth, Moon and a space probe, the orbit design of lunar orbiters is more complicated than that of Earth-orbiting satellites, which only deal with a two-body system. The Chang'e 1 and Chang'e 2 probes were first sent into highly elliptical Earth orbits. After separating from their launch vehicles, they entered an Earth-Moon transfer orbit through three accelerations in the phase-modulated orbit. These accelerations were conducted 16, 24, and 48 hours into the missions, during which several orbit adjustments and attitude maneuvers were carried out so as to ensure the probes' capture by lunar gravity. After operating in the Earth-Moon orbit for 4–5 days, each probe entered a lunar acquisition orbit. After entering their target orbits, conducting three braking maneuvers and experiencing three different orbit phases, Chang'e 1 and Chang'e 2 carried out their missions.

Attitude control

Lunar orbiters have to remain properly oriented with respect to the Earth, Moon and Sun. All onboard detectors must be kept facing the lunar surface in order to complete their scientific missions, communication antennas have to face the Earth in order to receive commands and transfer scientific data, and solar panels must be oriented toward the Sun in order to acquire power. During lunar orbit, the Earth, the Moon and the Sun also move, so attitude control is a complex three-vector control process. The Chang'e satellites need to adjust their attitude very carefully to maintain an optimal angle towards all three bodies.

Hazard avoidance

During the second phase of the program, in which the spacecraft were required to soft-land on the lunar surface, it was necessary to devise a system of automatic hazard avoidance in order that the landers would not attempt to touch down on unsuitable terrain. Chang'e 3 utilized a computer vision system in which the data from a down-facing camera, as well as 2 ranging devices, were processed using specialized software. The software controlled the final stages of descent, adjusting the attitude of the spacecraft and the throttle of its main engine. The spacecraft hovered first at 100 meters (330 feet), then at 30 meters (98 feet), as it searched for a suitable spot to set down. The Yutu rover is also equipped with front-facing stereo cameras and hazard avoidance technology.

International cooperation

Chang’e 1: The first Chinese lunar orbiter, launched in 2007. It carried a European Space Agency (ESA) instrument called D-CIXS, which measured the elemental composition of the lunar surface. It also received tracking and data relay support from ESA’s ground stations in Australia and Spain.

Chang’e 2: The second Chinese lunar orbiter, launched in 2010. It carried a laser altimeter provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which mapped the lunar topography with high precision. It also used ESA’s deep space network for communication and navigation during its extended mission to the asteroid 4179 Toutatis.

Chang’e 3: The first Chinese lunar lander and rover, launched in 2013. It carried a lunar ultraviolet telescope (LUT) developed by the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC) and the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA), which performed the first astronomical observations from the lunar surface. It also received data relay support from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) for the landing of the Chang’e 3 probe.

Chang’e-4: The first mission to land and explore the far side of the Moon, with four international scientific payloads from the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and Saudi Arabia. It also received support from NASA’s LRO team, Russia’s radioisotope heat source, China’s deep space station in Argentina, and the European Space Agency’s tracking station.

Chang’e-5: The first mission to return lunar samples since 1976, with international cooperation in telemetry, tracking, and command from the European Space Agency, Argentina, Namibia, Pakistan, and other countries and organizations. It also carried a French magnetic field detector. Scientists from various countries, including Australia, Russia, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Sweden, have participated in scientific research involving Chinese lunar samples.

Cooperation with Russia

In November 2017, China and Russia signed an agreement on cooperative lunar and deep space exploration.[36] The agreement includes six sectors, covering lunar and deep space, joint spacecraft development, space electronics, Earth remote sensing data, and space debris monitoring.[36][37][38] Russia may also look to develop closer ties with China in human spaceflight,[36] and even shift its human spaceflight cooperation from the US to China and build a crewed lunar lander.[39]


See also


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