UPDATED: Lunar Rover Marks Another Advance in China’s Space Programs

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 2

UPDATE (1/31/14): According to state media, the Yutu lunar rover suffered a “mechanical control abnormality" and failed to complete preparations for its second lunar night, which began January 25th (Xinhua, January 25).  This means that it will likely lose all functionality during the -292 degree Fahrenheit lunar night, ending the rover’s mission weeks earlier than originally planned.  However, the lunar lander appears to have successfully entered hibernation and will continue its mission, which is expected to last one year as noted below.  The setback will end the rover-based scientific experiments but does not change this article’s overall assessment of the Chinese space programs. It is possible that the Chang’e-4 probe will be used for a follow-up mission to test improvements to the rover.


On December 2, at approximately 1:30 AM local standard time, an enhanced Chang Zheng-3B rocket carrying the Chang’e-3 lunar probe lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan, China.  On December 14, China became only the third country to complete a lunar soft landing, following the United States and the former Soviet Union.   The next day, Chang’e-3 released the lunar rover Yutu onto the moon’s surface, and both the rover and the lander have begun conducting experiments and sending visual information and data back to Earth.  According to official state media, Yutu will explore the moon’s surface for three months and the lander has the capability to run for one year (Xinhua, December 23, 2013).

While China’s recent achievements are still roughly 40 to 50 years behind advances made during the U.S.-Soviet space race, the Chang’e-3 lunar probe landing marks another significant accomplishment in a period defined by China’s 2011 space white paper as “crucial” for “bring[ing] new opportunities to China’s space industry.”  Moreover, China’s space programs have enjoyed a string of successes that have put China on track to becoming one of the world’s most advanced space-faring nations within a decade.  The PRC has created and supported such programs to reap the benefits of conducting space-based scientific research as well as opportunities for international recognition and improving its popularity domestically with Chinese citizens.  As a result of this testing, research, and development, China’s lunar and deep space programs have already begun to spur advances in dual-use technologies that will shape China’s military and civilian use of space.

Recent Developments in Lunar and Deep Space Programs

The China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) has three phases: 1) orbital missions; 2) soft landing missions; and 3) “return” missions in which samples are sent back to Earth.  A fourth possible phase is future manned lunar missions.  In 2009, Ye Peijian, the chief designer of the Chang’e lunar probe, stated that China was studying the feasibility of conducting a manned lunar mission between 2025 and 2030, but little more is known about a prospective lunar mission.  The chart below provides a synopsis of completed and future missions:

Figure 1. China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP)/Chang’e Missions, 2007-2030
Project Phase Program Name Date Salient Attributes/Notes

Phase One: Orbiting

Chang’e-1 October 2007-March 2009 First lunar mission; detailed 3D mapping of moon; first lunar probe to use microwave radiator to conduct remote sensing; intentional crash onto moon’s surface
Chang’e-2 October 2010-present Tested preparations for Chang’e 3; improved cameras, measuring and tracking equipment; first Chinese mission to an asteroid; currently conducting deep space exploration mission to test tracking and control capabilities
Phase Two: Landing Chang’e-3 December 2013-present

Soft landing; rover and lander conducting surface exploration; withstanding extreme heat and cold on lunar surface; has conducted optical and ultraviolet-imaging experiments and arm flexing text; lander and rover successfully awoken after powering down for 14 day lunar “night”

  Chang’e-4 Not known Described as a back-up probe for Chang’e-3 in official media
Phase Three: Returning Chang’e-5 est. 2017-2018

Chang’e-4 will be used as a prototype for Chang’e-5 technologies; expected to gather lunar soil samples

Manned Lunar Missions Future missions est. 2025-2030

Sources: The eoPortal Directory [1]; Xinhua coverage from May 24, 2009, December 18, 23, and 26, 2013.

The Chang’e-2 is China’s first deep space explorer, having already ventured over 37 million miles from Earth and potentially traveling nearly 196 million miles before it loses functionality (Xinhua, November 26, 2013; Taikong Tansuo [Space Exploration], June 1, 2013).  Since leaving lunar orbit, Chang’e-2 has achieved two milestones for China’s deep space exploration so far.  First, in August 2011, it became the first spacecraft to exit lunar orbit and then enter the orbit of the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange Point, a complex feat because at L2, the gravity of both the sun and Earth balance a spacecraft’s orbital motion.  Second, in December 2012, the Chang’e-2 conducted a successful flyby of the asteroid 4179 Toutatis, coming within two miles of the asteroid and becoming the fourth space agency in the world after the United States, Europe, and Japan to conduct close flyby operations with an asteroid (Xinhua, December 15, 2012).  Chinese scientists have also discussed plans for an independent Mars mission, after a Chinese Mars probe in November 2011 launched on the back of a Russian rocket that burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere and fell into the Pacific Ocean.

Motivations for Space Programs

Chinese motivations for space program development primarily fall into four main categories: domestic prestige, international recognition, scientific advances, and national security needs.  First, the space program is frequently portrayed as popular with Chinese citizens, particularly the Shenzhou manned missions, which are described as having captured the Chinese imagination as a mark of modernization and development (Xinhua, June 16, 2013).  Particularly after the Shenzhou manned missions began in 2003, government officials have consciously highlighted the success of the programs as a component of overall Chinese development efforts.  For example, after the recent Chang’e-3 launch, Zhang Zhenzhong, director of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, said, “We will strive for our space dream as part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation,” a reference to the “Chinese dream” promoted by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping beginning in late 2012 (Xinhua, December 2, 2013).

Second, China has made efforts to publicly contribute to a “peaceful” space realm that all countries can use and share.  China first became a partner with other countries during the late 1980s when it developed a satellite-launching service for small countries that lacked the capability to produce rockets with sufficient lift capability by themselves.  In 1992, China, Thailand, and Pakistan jointly proposed the development of a regional space collaboration mechanism, and China hosted the Asia-Pacific Workshop on Multilateral Cooperation in Space Technology and Applications (AP-MCSTA) in Beijing later that year.  The workshop evolved into the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO; in Chinese yatai kongjian hezuo zuzhi) in 2008 and is headquartered in Beijing.  Member and signatory states currently include Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey. [2] APSCO has proposed and begun implementing collaborative satellite projects as well as education and training programs for scientists from member countries and cooperation on Earth observation, disaster management, and environmental programs.  One project begun in 2011, the Asia-Pacific Ground Based Optical Satellite Observation System or APOSOS, aims to develop a regional space observation network by linking existing observatories through a shared data center and building new ones in APSCO’s member countries and other participating countries.  A presentation prepared by the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) noted that APOSOS would facilitate tracking, including a collision early warning service, as well as other services like orbit determination and cataloguing, predicting space objects’ re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, and providing further opportunities for technical consultation and training among member countries. [3]

Third, a key component of China’s space program efforts featured prominently in the 2011 space white paper and elsewhere is the opportunity for scientific advancement.  So far, hundreds of innovations are reportedly coming from the space program; for example, a People’s Daily Online article on the Shenzhou-10 launch noted that “80 percent of more than 1,100 kinds of new materials China has developed recently are completed under the aerospace technology department” (June 14, 2013).  Some of these technologies include life support systems, the Feitian astronaut suits, thermal paint, insulation and anti-obstruction window materials, improvements in solar cell conversion efficiency levels, new types of lubricant oils, and a Payload Data Management System (PDMS) to transmit video, imagery, science and other data back to Earth (eoPortal Directory; People’s Daily Online, June 14, 2013).  The Shenzhou and Chang’e missions have also facilitated hundreds of experiments, including animal research, microgravity crystallography (examining the arrangement of atoms in solids), ray and particle detection, the first permanent Moon-based telescope, and the possibility of extracting natural resources from the Moon (eoPortal Directory; Xinhua, September 4; conference; China Daily Online, December 23, 2013). [4] The missions have additionally tested upgrades to radio transmissions, weather and other sensors, videography and imaging, Earth observation, and space environment monitoring.  Data from the lunar launches is being distributed to universities and academies throughout the mainland, Hong Kong, and Macau to expand academic research and analysis on space issues (eoPortal Directory).

Finally, the 2011 space white paper acknowledges the value of China’s space exploration, including satellite systems and the lunar and other programs discussed in this article, for national security purposes.  China’s space program is run by both civilian and military organizations, including China’s NASA equivalent, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), and the PLA’s General Armament Department (GAD).  CNSA manages space technologies and industries, international agreements, exchanges with other countries, and the lunar program with some military support (Kevin Pollpeter, “Competing Perceptions of the U.S. and Chinese Space Programs,” China Brief, March 5, 2007).  GAD oversees R&D, launch sites, spacecraft, and the human spaceflight program.  CNSA is also closely integrated with SASTIND, the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, a civilian agency that works with GAD to coordinate which defense firms may undertake R&D and production of weapons systems.  Many of the technologies and experiments performed during Chang’e and Shenzhou manned missions feature dual-use components highly relevant for military systems and platforms as well as space-based military operations.  Some examples are below:

  • Telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C):  One purpose of the Chang’e-2’s extended mission was to test spacecraft tracking and command capabilities, particularly given that China recently built two new measuring and control stations in Xinjiang and Heilongjiang (eoPortal Directory).  TT&C capabilities are also needed to track the whereabouts of other countries’ spacecraft, such as C4ISR satellites.
  • Data transfer: Components of the Payload Data Management Systems (PDMS), including its S-band transmitters, are also used in Chinese satellites such as the SJ-5 and the SJ-9A to relay information back to Earth (eoPortal Directory).  Improvements in data transmission quantity, speed, and duration could enhance a satellite’s ability to relay data on, for example, the location of relevant military targets back to the PLA.
  • Civil-military space missions: The Shenzhou-7 mission’s launch of the BX-1 and the satellite’s subsequent ISS approach are perhaps the most obvious example of the dual-use nature of space missions, as the mission featured China’s first extra-vehicular activity (EVA) and a manned space mission of three astronauts in addition to carrying the BX-1.  The BX-1 performed formation-flying experiments with the discarded orbital module, and with its two optical cameras and on-board communication equipment, the BX-1 could take pictures of satellites in orbit and relay them either to other spacecraft or down to Earth (eoPortal Directory).
  • Rocketry: The Chang Zheng (Long March) rocket family is used to launch dual-use satellites as well as modules and equipment for the Shenzhou and Chang’e missions (Kevin Pollpeter, “Competing Perceptions of the U.S. and Chinese Space Programs,” China Brief, March 5, 2007).  The greater weight of the multi-module Tiangong-3 space station, which will be roughly the same size as the International Space Station, has necessitated the development of a more powerful rocket to launch it into orbit. During the summer of 2013, the next-generation Long March 5, which will be used to launch the Tiangong-3, moved into the testing phase—although its slated launch date of 2015 is two years later than originally planned due to difficulties with constructing its larger diameter (China Daily Online, March 4, 2013; iFeng, August 14, 2013).  The medium-sized Long March 7 for lighter launches is expected to come online in 2017 (Xinhua, March 6, 2012), and China is also developing the Long March 11, a solid fuel launcher with short-notice launch capability that is expected to make its first launch before 2016 (China Daily Online, March 4, 2013). Though space rockets and strategic rockets generally have different requirements (the former to maximize lift capacity and the latter to maximize launch speed while maintaining first strike survivability), advances in telemetry, navigational and guidance, for example, could spill over to improve development of strategic rockets.  As a solid fuel rocket, the Long March 11 may lead to cross-development with Dong Feng-class military rockets, the majority of which in service today use solid fuel.


Although details from the experiments conducted by both rover and lander have not yet been released, the relatively long duration of Chang’e-3 mission should provide opportunities for better assessing how this most recent space mission advances China’s space program priorities.  First, new scientific advances beyond earlier Chang’e missions should provide some clues regarding the priority of research interests being explored in current lunar-based experiments.  Second, official and other media coverage should give some indication of how the government perceives the mission as fulfilling broader motivations for the overall space program.

This article was edited on January 30, 2014, to clarify the division of responsibility between China’s civilian and military space agencies.


  1. The eoPortal Directory is affiliated with the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT).
  2. Huang Yan, Maqbool Ahmad Chaudhry, and Zhang Wei, “Introduction to the Project of Asia-Pacific Ground-Based Optical Space Objects Observation System,” Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (June 12, 2013), p. 1027.
  3. Guo Xiaozhong, “Asia-Pacific ground-base Optical Satellite Observation System: APOSOS,” (October 2011), < http://swfound.org/media/50867/Guo_APOSOS.pdf >
  4. See also Gu Yidong (Center for Space Utilization, Chinese Academy of Sciences), “Life and Physical Science Experiments in China’s Space Station,” televideo lecture at American Society for Gravitational and Space Research 2013 Conference, November 3-8, 2013, < https://connect.arc.nasa.gov/<wbr></wbr>p421i93ot05/?launcher=false&<wbr></wbr>fcsContent=true&pbMode=normal >