After the week the space travel industry had, we all need a happy space story right about now. This one happens to involve a private spacecraft, but not one built or launched in America. On Saturday, the first privately funded moon mission concluded a successful eight-day return trip.
The mission, called 4M (Manfred Memorial Moon Mission), was developed by LuxSpace, a company from Luxembourg, and coupled with a Chinese lunar flyby mission called Chang’e 5-T1 (you might recognize the name Chang’e from the Yutu mission). The flyby was developed to test China’s new re-entry technology, as the country is ramping up its lunar exploration program, while the 4M project was an experiment in communications and the feasibility of crowdsourcing participation.
On October 23, a Chinese Long March rocket blasted off with the 31-pound 4M payload attached to its upper stage. As the spacecraft flew around the moon, 4M—essentially, a small solar-powered computer—recorded radiation levels, among other things, and transmitted signals that LuxSpace encouraged ham radio operators to listen to, offering prizes to participants.
Data collected by radio enthusiasts also aimed to prove the viability of a crowd-based approach to spacecraft navigation. The company hopes to increase the public’s interest in space exploration, as well as promote its approach to future space missions—something it calls the “microsatellite approach.” One of the benefits of that approach is cost—the whole mission is in the six-figure range. 4M is also the first private spacecraft to make a lunar loop, but it almost certainly won’t be the last.
With Chang’e 5-T1, China wanted to test the viability of taking moon samples back to Earth for analysis, rather than having rovers conduct on-site analyses with their built-in labs. The spacecraft circled the moon then released a small capsule that successfully survived reentry. This is all part of China’s lunar exploration program, which completed its first and second orbital phases a couple years ago. The third phase was href=”http://www.giantfreakinrobot.com/?s=yutu” target=”_blank”>Chang’e 3 and Yutu’s successful soft landing on the moon almost a year ago. Chang’e 4 (which will likely be the Chang’e 3 back-up craft) will head to the moon next year—perhaps to the south pole.
In 2017, Chang’e 5 will launch, but this one’s more complicated. The mission actually involves four spacecraft, including a service module and a lander, which will separate into their respective forms and pursue their individual goals once the craft has entered lunar orbit. The lander will place lunar samples into a capsule like the one that successfully landed yesterday, and send that into lunar orbit where it will hopefully reunite with the service module and make its way back to Earth. The success of the Chang’e 5- T1 (first test vehicle) makes this ambitious mission seem a little less daunting, and gives us some good news in a dark week for space exploration.