China operates first deep-space antenna array system in Xinjiang region

China has completed building the country’s first deep space antenna array system at a ground station in Kashi, Northwest China’s Xinjiang, which will be directly used for spacecraft tracking and monitoring missions, including the Tianwen-1 Mars probe and the upcoming Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission, the Xi’an Satellite Control Center, the Kashi station’s operator, announced on Tuesday.

The Chang’e-5 lunar probe, along with its carrier rocket Long March-5 Y5 commissioned for the probe, have been vertically transported to their launch site after their assembly and testing were completed at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in South China’s Hainan Province on Tuesday, the Global Times learned from the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

The Long March-5 Y5 is scheduled to launch the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission in late November, CNSA revealed.

Preparation work on the rocket has been completed, including assembly and pre-launch testing, after it was transported in the specialized cargo ship Yuan Wang to the southeastern port of Wenchang in late September, and then delivered by road to the Wenchang Space Launch Center.

On Tuesday morning, the mobile launch platform transferred the carrier rocket to the launch area after a smooth roll-out from the vertical test plant, which took around two hours.

Propellant will be injected into the rocket after further functional checks and final inspections are conducted. The rocket will then be launched according to schedule.

The mission marks the second application launch of the Long March-5, after the first carried China’s first Mars probe mission, Tianwen-1, into space in late July.

The Chang’e-5 lunar probe is the sixth mission of China’s lunar exploration project. It is planned to carry out lunar sample collection and return from the lunar surface, collecting data for scientific research on the environment and evolution of the moon.

The probe is one of the most complex and difficult missions in China’s aerospace industry to date, CNSA said.

The Chang’e-5 is expected to carry out four key missions in the country’s aerospace industry: China’s first sample return, the first takeoff from the lunar surface, the first unmanned rendezvous and docking on the lunar orbit some 380,000 kilometers away, and the first high-speed reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

If the Chang’e-5 mission is successful, China will become the third country in the world to bring lunar samples back after the US and Russia.

It took nearly two years to build the deep space antenna array system, which will be directly used for spacecraft tracking and monitoring missions including the Chang’e-5, and a variety of tests was conducted before the system became operational recently, the Xi’an center told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Aimed at enhancing the ground station’s space monitoring and controlling capabilities, the Xi’an center built three 35-meter-diameter antennas in addition to the original one at the Kashi station.

Working together, the system of four antennas will be equivalent to that of a 66-meter-diameter antenna, greatly expanding the Kashi station’s monitoring range and enhancing the station’s data receiving sensitivity, laying the foundation for the country’s deep space exploration projects.

Li Sihu, head of the Kashi deep space station, told the Global Times, “The system can not only conduct high-precision tracking and control of single target spacecraft but also track multiple targets.”

The system can also join other observatories at home and overseas for joint space tracking and observation missions, Li noted.

Global Times learned from the Xi’an Satellite Control Center that strict closed-off measures have been put in place to help the Kashi center overcome difficulties brought about by the latest COVID-19 outbreak in late October in the region, so the project team has been able to deliver the system on schedule.

As an integral part of China’s deep-space monitoring and control system, the Kashi station has participated in and successfully accomplished its assignments in previous exploration projects, including the Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4 lunar probes.

The Kashi station will also work with the deep space stations located in Jiamusi, Northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, as well as China’s first overseas deep-space ground station located in Argentina’s Patagonia region, for the space tracking and control mission of the Tianwen-1 Mars probe.

Sources at the Xi’an center also told the Global Times that China’s deep space stations are prepared to support the upcoming Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission, as they have carried out equipment maintenance work and training specifically for the new lunar probe mission.

The Chang’e-5 mission is the third phase of China’s lunar exploration project, with the previous orbiters Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2, and roving missions Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4 completing the first two stages.

China has also released plans for Chang’e-6, which will be commissioned for a sample return near the south pole of the moon according to the current probe’s progress.

The Chang’e-7 will conduct a comprehensive survey on the moon’s south pole, covering its topography, material composition, and environment. In addition to extended probing missions, Chang’e-8 will also conduct lunar surface tests of some key technologies. 

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