China Aims for a Permanent Moon Base in the 2030s

Lunar megaproject to be a stepping-stone to the solar system

6 min read
Image of the China national flash with the moon in the background.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

On 3 January 2019, the Chinese spacecraft Chang'e-4 descended toward the moon. Countless craters came into view as the lander approached the surface, the fractal nature of the footage providing no sense of altitude. Su Yan, responsible for data reception for the landing at Miyun ground station, in Beijing, was waiting—nervously and in silence with her team—for vital signals indicating that optical, laser, and microwave sensors had combined effectively with rocket engines for a soft landing. "When the [spectral signals were] clearly visible, everyone cheered enthusiastically. Years of hard work had paid off in the most sweet way," Su recalls.

Chang'e-4 had, with the help of a relay satellite out beyond the moon, made an unprecedented landing on the always-hidden lunar far side. China's space program, long trailing in the footsteps of the U.S. and Soviet (now Russian) programs, had registered an international first. The landing also prefigured grander Chinese lunar ambitions.

In 2020 Chang'e-5, a complex sample-return mission, returned to Earth with young lunar rocks, completing China's three-step "orbit, land, and return" lunar program conceived in the early 2000s. These successes, together with renewed international scientific and commercial interest in the moon, have emboldened China to embark on a new lunar project that builds on the Chang'e program's newly acquired capabilities.

The International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) is a complex, multiphase megaproject that the China National Space Administration (CNSA) unveiled jointly with Russia in June in St. Petersburg. Starting with robotic landing and orbiting missions in the 2020s, its designers envision a permanently inhabited lunar base by the mid-2030s. Objectives include science, exploration, technology verification, resource and commercial exploitation, astronomical observation, and more.

ILRS will begin with a robotic reconnaissance phase running up to 2030, using orbiting and surface spacecraft to survey potential landing areas and resources, conduct technology-verification tests, and assess the prospects for an eventual permanent crewed base on the moon. The phase will consist of Chinese missions Chang'e-4, Chang'e-6 sample return, and the more ambitious Chang'e-7, as well as Russian Luna spacecraft, plus potential missions from international partners interested in joining the endeavor. Chang'e-7 will target a lunar south pole landing and consist of an orbiter, relay satellite, lander, and rover. It will also include a small spacecraft capable of "hopping" to explore shadowed craters for evidence of potential water ice, a resource that, if present, could be used in the future for both propulsion and supplies for astronauts.

CNSA will help select the site for a two-stage construction phase that will involve in situ resource utilization (ISRU) tests with Chang'e-8, massive cargo delivery with precision landings, and the start of joint operations between partners. ISRU, in this case using the lunar regolith (the fine dust, soil, and rock that makes up most of the moon's surface) for construction and extraction of resources such as oxygen and water, would represent a big breakthrough. Being able to use resources already on the moon means fewer things need to be delivered, at great expense, from Earth.

Illustration of the CNSA plans for a lunar base and landings.The China National Space Administration (CNSA) recently unveiled its plans for a lunar base in the 2030s, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). The first phase involves prototyping, exploration, and reconnaissance of possible ILRS locations.James Provost

The utilization phase will begin in the early 2030s. It tentatively consists of missions numbered ILRS-1 through 5 and relies on heavy-lift launch vehicles to establish command, energy, and telecommunications infrastructure; experiment, scientific, and IRSU facilities; and Earth- and astronomical-observation capabilities. CNSA artist renderings indicate spacecraft will use the lunar regolith to make structures that would provide shielding from radiation while also exploring lava tubes as potential alternative areas for habitats.

The completed ILRS would then host and support crewed missions to the moon in around 2036. This phase, CNSA says, will feature lunar research and exploration, technology verification, and expanding and maintaining modules as needed.

These initial plans are vague, but senior figures in China's space industry have noted huge, if challenging, possibilities that could greatly contribute to development on Earth. Ouyang Ziyuan, a cosmochemist and early driving force for Chinese lunar exploration, notes in a July talkthe potential extraction of helium-3, delivered to the lunar surface by unfiltered solar wind, for nuclear fusion (which would require major breakthroughs on Earth and in space).

Another possibility is 3D printing of solar panels at the moon's equator, which would capture solar energy to be transmitted to Earth by lasers or microwaves. China is already conducting early research toward this end. As with NASA's Artemis plan, Ouyang notes that the moon is a stepping-stone to other destinations in the solar system, both through learning and as a launchpad.

The more distant proposals currently appear beyond reach, but in its space endeavors China has demonstrated a willingness to develop capabilities and apply these for new possibilities. Sample-return tech from Chang'e-5 will next be used to collect material from a near-Earth asteroid around 2024. Near the end of the decade, this tech will contribute to the Tianwen-1 Mars mission's capabilities for an unprecedented Mars sample-return attempt. How the ILRS develops will then depend on success and science and resource findings of the early missions.

China is already well placed to implement the early phases of the ILRS blueprint. The Long March 5, a heavy-lift rocket, had its first flight in 2016 and has since enabled the country to begin constructing a space station and to launch spacecraft such as a first independent interplanetary mission and Chang'e-5. To develop the rocket, China had to make breakthroughs in using cryogenic propellant and machining a new, wider-diameter rocket body.

This won't be enough for larger missions, however. Huang Jun, a professor at Beihang University, in Beijing, says a super heavy-lift rocket, the high-thrust Long March 9, is a necessity for the future of Chinese aerospace. "Research and breakthroughs in key technologies are progressing smoothly, and the project may at any time enter the engineering-development stage."

Image of different landings missions by CNSA.CNSA's plans for its international moon base involve a set of missions, dubbed ILRS-1 through ILRS-5, now projected between 2031 and 2035. IRLS-1, as planned, will in 2031 establish a command center and basic infrastructure. Subsequent missions over the ensuing four years would set up research facilities, sample­ collection systems, and Earth­ and space­observation capabilities.James Provost

The roughly 100-meter-long, Saturn V–like Long March 9 will be capable of launching around 50 tonnes of payload to translunar injection. The project requires precision manufacturing of thin yet strong, 10-meter-diameter rocket stages and huge new engines. In Beijing, propulsion institutes under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., recently produced an engineering prototype of a 220-tonne thrust staged-combustion liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine. In a ravine near Xi'an, in north China, firing tests of a dual-chamber 500-tonne-thrust kerosene/liquid oxygen engine for the first stage have been carried out. Long March 9 is expected to have its first flight around 2030, which would come just in time to launch the robotic ILRS construction missions.

A human-rated rocket is also under development, building on technologies from the Long March 5. It will feature similar but uprated versions of the YF-100 kerosene/liquid oxygen engine and use three rocket cores, in a similar fashion to SpaceX's Falcon Heavy. Its task will be sending a deep-space-capable crew spacecraft into lunar orbit, where it could dock with a lunar-landing stack launched by a Long March 9.

The spacecraft itself is a new-generation advance on the Shenzhou, which currently ferries astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. A test launch in May 2020 verified that the new vessel can handle the greater heat of a higher-speed atmospheric reentry from higher, more energetic orbits. Work on a crew lander is also assumed to be underway. The Chang'e-5 mission was also seen as a scaled test run for human landings, as it followed a profile similar to NASA's Apollo missions. After lifting off from the moon, the ascent vehicle reunited and docked with a service module, much in the way that an Apollo ascent vehicle rejoined a command module in lunar orbit before the journey home.

China and Russia are inviting all interested countries and partners to cooperate in the project. The initiative will be separate from the United States' Artemis moon program, however. The United States has long opposed cooperating with China in space, and recent geopolitical developments involving both Beijing and Moscow have made things worse still. As a result, China and Russia, its International Space Station partner, have looked to each other as off-world partners. "Ideally, we would have an international coalition of countries working on a lunar base, such as the Moon Village concept proposed by former ESA director-general Jan Wörner. But so far geopolitics have gotten in the way of doing that," says Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation.

The final details and partners may change, but China, for its part, seems set on continuing the accumulation of expertise and technologies necessary to get to the moon and back, and stay there in the long term.

This article appears in the October 2021 print issue as "China's Lunar Station Megaproject."

The Conversation (2)
Brian Mathews23 Sep, 2021

The dawn of a new space race? Or just something to keep us occupied?

1 Reply

The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.