China has launched a spacecraft to fly around the Moon and back in preparation for a sample return mission planned for 2017 carrying a European radio experiment.
Without any prior publicity, the Chang'e 5 T1 orbiter has been sent towards the Moon aboard China’s Long March 3C rocket from the country’s Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in the province of Sichuan early on Friday.
The mission, scheduled to last only eight days, will test critical technology needed for the ambitious Chang'e 5 mission that aims to land a spacecraft on the Moon, collect a sample of lunar soil and bring it back to Earth.
The Chang'e 5 T1 spacecraft is based on the design of China's Chang'e 2 lunar orbiter launched in 2010 but carries a re-entry test capsule that will validate technology for the future sample return including a protective heat shield and navigation and control software.
Aboard the spacecraft is a small radio payload called 4M built by LuxSpace Sarl, a Luxembourg-based subsidiary of German satellite manufacturer OHB. The experiment was created in memory of German space entrepreneur and satellite engineer Professor Manfred Fuchs who died in April this year.
The device will transmit messages sent by radio amateurs from around the world. The company has invited radio amateurs to listen for signals from 4M. The first was intercepted at 09:31 CEST in Brazil.
"A very large number of radio amateurs has followed our request to acquire the data from the satellite. It is very encouraging to see so many people following our mission," said Marco Fuchs, CEO of OHB.
4M also carries an instrument to measure the size of an appropriate radiation shielding and a multi-lateration trial for spacecraft navigation for the next lunar mission.
China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency confirmed Chang'e 5 T1 with 4M aboard separated from the rocket as planned and entered into orbit around the Earth. The probe will reach the lunar orbit on Monday.
After circling around the Moon, the probe will return to Earth and enter into elliptical Earth orbit with the nearest point at about 50,000km.
"We have only known about this for a number of weeks and have added some solar cells to the probe to extend its lifetime and obtain more radiation data from this unexplored orbit which we will certainly share with all interested parties", added Jochen Harms, managing director of LuxSpace.
The descent method to be used by the spacecraft was originally developed by the Soviets and will allow the capsule to slow down before entering the atmosphere for a less fiery re-entry.