China's government has officially approved three robotic moon missions that will lay groundwork for a permanent lunar base.
The Chang'e program missions in development are progressing well, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced on Sept. 10, with the next spacecraft, Chang'e 6, almost complete.
China has made a number of leaps in lunar exploration since beginning its robotic moon program in 2004. In successive missions, the nation has successfully launched first a pair of orbiters, then a lander and a rover; conducted the only far-side lunar landing to date; and most recently executed a complex sample-return mission.
Liu Jizhong, director of CNSA's Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center, told CCTV (opens in new tab)that the overarching goal of these missions is to lay a foundation for a lunar research station.
"There are a lot of technological issues to be tackled" Liu said. "However, with the foundation we've built up and an excellent team, I believe we will succeed."
The first of the new missions will be Chang'e 6, which was initially built as a backup to the 2020 Chang'e 5 lunar sample-return mission. Chang'e 5 was successful, so the spacecraft is being repurposed for the first-ever attempt at collecting samples from the far side of the moon. CNSA has not provided a timeline for the mission, despite the advanced stages of development of the spacecraft.
Next, Chang'e 7 will target the lunar south pole. The mission will consist of an orbiter, lander, rover, relay satellite and a small detector that can hop into craters to hunt for water.
Chang'e 8 will launch later in the decade and is intended to test technologies for 3D printing and for using local resources.
China is planning a project named the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in collaboration with Russia for the 2030s and is seeking partners to join the endeavor.