USA vs China: the race to conquer the lunar south pole has begun

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More than fifty years ago, humanity embarked on the greatest adventure in history. A total of twelve men walked on the surface of the Moon, culminating a decade of great and successive advances in all branches of science. Today we find ourselves in a similar era, where the constant tensions between the United States and China to arrive first have motivated and driven the development of new vehicles to visit the natural satellite.

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First photograph taken by Neil Armstrong from the lunar surface. Credits: NASA.

decades of neglect

At the beginning of lunar exploration, both nations developed numerous probes that sought to carry out the first reconnaissance and analysis of the satellite. Successively increasing in complexity, maps were created with unprecedented detail of the entire surface, in search of potential lunar landing sites.

The era of lunar exploration spans between 1959 and 1976, in which dozens of probes were launched by the United States and the Soviet Union. Its peak would be July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would walk on the surface for the first time in history. From this point on, there would be a sharp decline in missions to study the Moon, concluding with the Soviet Luna 24 sample return mission in 1976.

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Orbital photograph of the Luna 24 probe, the last to explore the lunar surface until Chang'e 3.

It would take a long time to regain interest in the Moon, especially in sending probes to its surface. It would not be until 2013 with the Chinese ship Chang'e 3 that first time in more than 35 years that an object would land on the moon.

Artemis: Apollo's twin

At the end of the space shuttle era, the United States regained strong interests in returning to the Moon. For this purpose, a mission architecture was designed that would not only allow people to return, but also allow for much longer stays. The now canceled Constellation program sought to prepare humanity to reach Mars.

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NASA's SLS rocket from the Artemis I mission. It will be responsible for taking astronauts to lunar orbit for future missions. Credits: NASA.

Currently, the United States is developing the Artemis program. Which is named after the twin of the Greek god Apollo. This aims to create a permanent settlement on the Moon and explore the south pole, where evidence of the presence of frozen water has been found.

In November 2022, the Artemis I mission took off, whose objective was to test the SLS rocket, responsible for taking future astronauts in the Orion capsule to the Moon. Artemis II is planned to take off no earlier than November 2024, carrying the first people around the satellite for the first time in more than fifty years.

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Official portrait of the crew of the future Artemis II mission. Credits: NASA.

After two test flights, NASA hopes to use the Starship spacecraft in its lunar variant to carry the first woman and the next man to the surface on the Artemis III mission. The next flight would repeat the flight profile, but expanding the possibilities with new experiments and equipment.

Artemis V would employ a different lander. In this case it would be Blue Moon MK2, from the Blue Origin company.

Chang'e: first lunar steps

China has a program of different phases, where each one is more complex and advanced than the previous one and seeks to learn what is necessary for future manned missions.. The first consisted of entering lunar orbit, successfully achieved with Chang'e 1 and 2. The second sought to reach the surface and carry a rover.

Chang'e 3 and 4 carried Yutu and Yutu-2, respectively. The latter would be the first time that the hidden side of the Moon was explored. Subsequently, Chang'e 5 would be the first sample collection and recovery.

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Photograph of the Yutu-2 lunar rover seen from the Chang'e 4 descent module: Credits: CNSA.

In March 2024, China will launch the Queqiao 2 satellite, whose objective is to allow communication between stations on Earth and the far side of the Moon. Two months later, Chang'e 6 would take off towards the far side of the lunar south pole, in search of extracting and recovering samples of the regolith in that area.

Finally, the Chang'e program would culminate with versions 7 and 8, which seek to better understand the lunar south pole and investigate the environment for future manned missions and stations for regular or permanent stay.

Lunar travel reinvented

Unlike the Apollo program, Artemis will use a much more complex infrastructure. While the Saturn V allowed exploration and return with a single flight, carrying both the module into orbit and the lander, future missions will require multiple successive launches to carry out fuel transfers.

For the human landing system (HLS) contract, SpaceX proposes using up to three variants of its Starship spacecraft. The first of these would be a fuel tank, which would remain in orbit and its heat shield and aerodynamic surfaces would be removed.

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Digital recreation of the Starship HLS lunar module on the lunar surface with equipment and crew deployed at the bottom to give an idea of scale. Credits: SpaceX

Between ten and twenty successive launches of reusable Starship ships that would be responsible for filling the tank with fuel. Needing the ability to take off from Boca Chica and Cape Canaveral at least once a day.

Once the tank has enough methane and liquid oxygen, aboard a Super Heavy propellant, the Starship in its lunar version would take off. Through orbital encounters it would dock with the tank to transfer everything necessary for the trip to the Moon.

Once in lunar orbit, Starship would wait fully loaded for the arrival of the astronauts aboard the Orion capsule. To finally descend to the south pole, carry out extravehicular activities and take off from the surface again. Eventually, the crew would return aboard Orion to Earth.

Orion splashdown pillars

Chinese lunar voyage

While the United States seeks to reinvent itself with its missions, requiring the development and demonstration of numerous new techniques, China seeks an easier and more direct method to reach the Moon. Having an approach more similar to that of the United States in its Apollo program.

Although a future heavy-lift rocket is currently under development, this would serve for future more advanced missions that require a greater amount of equipment. Long March 9 is generally credited as the one that will take the next so-called taiconaut to the Moon. However, in order to accelerate the program, a Long March 10 will be used, a modified version of the LM 5 with improvements in its capabilities and reuse of already demonstrated technologies.

Digital recreation of the Long March 10 rocket in its manned version.
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Photograph of the exhibition of the ship and descent module of future Chinese manned missions.

Unlike the Saturn V, two different launches would be used to carry the manned spacecraft and the lander. This would be the first to be launched, reaching lunar orbit and awaiting the arrival of the astronauts aboard the NGCS spacecraft; of the acronym in English for New Generation Manned Capsule.

Three Chinese astronauts would fly to the Moon and once in orbit they would perform a rendezvous maneuver to dock with the descent module. On board of which two of them would descend to the surface. After no more than two days, they would take off again to dock with the NGCS ship and head to Earth. Culminating the adventure with a soft parachute landing somewhere in Mongolia.

The new space race

Similar to the first space race, the new era of lunar exploration is driven by a competition between two global superpowers. In the coming years, humanity will witness new developments to demonstrate who has more industrial and technological power.

The United States currently hopes to return to the lunar surface in 2025. However, the complex mission architecture of both Starship and Blue Moon poses a risk to the planned date. China seeks to accelerate the development of its ships, rockets and probes to show the world its capacity and get ahead in the control of the resources found at the lunar south pole.

Francisco Andrés Forero Daza