China to launch lunar rover, mine moon for nuclear fuel

A top Chinese official has confirmed that the world's most populous nation plans to send robots to the moon.

A top Chinese official has confirmed that the world's most populous nation plans to send robots to the moon.

Ziyuan Ouyang, chief scientist of the Chinese lunar exploration program, made the announcement at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), held in Shanghai. The missions, scheduled for launch in 2013 and 2017, will serve as a tune up for a more challenging goal: putting a man on the moon by 2025.

"But why?" you ask. Well, beyond obvious bragging rights, the China National Space Administration's ambitious foray into lunar exploration is part of a grander scheme to exploit the moon's vast iron reserves and its abundance of Helium-3, a rare but heavily sought-after fuel for nuclear fusion plants.

This elaborate operation to mine the moon for these coveted natural resources was set in motion back in 2007 when the agency launched into space its first lunar orbiter Chang'e-1 (named after the moon goddess of Chinese folklore) to scan the landscape and produce a detailed 3-D map of the moon's surface. This was followed in 2010 by the successful launch of another probe, Chang'e-2, which was equipped with a higher-resolution camera and orbited at an even closer distance of 100 kilometers. The data is being used to pinpoint an ideal landing spot for a rover.

Ouyang says it's been decided that Chang'e-3's spacecraft, which includes an unmanned lunar lander and autonomous lunar rover, will be sent to explore the Sinus Iridium region. Equipped with a solar-powered battery, sensors, cameras, x-ray and infrared spectrometers, as well as a radar, the robots will navigate and explore the terrain. The rover will be the first to launch, while the lander will be sent later to drill, conduct experiments and collect samples.

But if past interplanetary unmanned missions are any indication, China's engineers have their work cut out for them. IEEE Spectrum, which hosted the event, explains in detail the kinds of challenges the researchers are facing:

One of the (many) tricky parts of operating on the moon is designing a rover that can stay alive during the lunar night, which is a half-month long, making solar power an impracticality. To help keep itself alive, the Chinese rover will have a supplementary nuclear battery powered by plutonium 238, which will give the rover a lifespan of 30 years, although its mission life will be only three months. This is the same type of radioisotope thermoelectric generator system (RTG) being used on the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity.

And when it comes to colonizing the moon, other nations have their own ideas, too. Japan hopes to have a moon base by 2030. India is thinking the same thing. Russia and the European Space Agency are targeting an earlier date: 2025.

In the U.S., however, the timeline for a return to the moon is up in the air now that NASA's Constellation Program has since been canceled due to budget constraints.

Image: slide from Chinese lunar exploration program presentation / IEEE Spectrum

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