China’s Chang’e 5 orbiter en route to solar observation point

The orbiter separated from the Chang’e-5 capsule
The orbiter separated from the Chang’e-5 capsule

China’s Chang’e 5 orbiter is expected to reach a point in space where it will be able to observe the sun in the middle of March, according to state media.

The spacecraft, which separated from the capsule that carried lunar samples back home last month, is heading towards a sun-Earth Lagrange point, about 1.5 million km from the Earth.

Lagrange points – named after the Italian-French mathematician Josephy-Louis Lagrange – are positions in space where the gravitational pull of two large masses is equal, so spacecraft require less fuel to hold their position.

The so-called L1 point between the sun and the Earth is regarded as the ideal spot for solar observation as the view is never obstructed. The European and US space agencies have carried out similar observations there and it will be the future home of Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope.

Thanks to “the high accuracy of orbital injection”, the Chang’e 5 orbiter consumed just 0.3 per cent of its designed propellant for orbit correction during the lunar mission last month and had over 200kg (440lbs) remaining for further manoeuvres, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology said in a statement.

Sheng Ruiqing, deputy chief designer of Chang’e 5 probe, said the orbiter had travelled 1.43 million km in a month, had more than 100kg of fuel and would take over two months to complete the rest of its journey at a reduced speed.

“It’s China’s first attempt at space exploration of the solar system within the Earth’s orbit. The lighting conditions, measurement and control conditions, as well as thermal conditions, are quite different from previous detections. The mission will provide data support for potential deep space explorations in the future,” she said in an interview with China’s state broadcaster CCTV.

“We will evaluate exploration tasks for the next stage according to the orbiter’s condition at the L1 point.”

In 2011, the Chang’e 2 orbiter carried out a similar mission to the sun-Earth L2 point, which is positioned outside the Earth’s orbit. After monitoring high-energy particles and solar wind, in December 2012 it went further into space to conduct a fly-by of asteroid 4179 Toutatis.

Source: South China Morning Post – China’s Chang’e 5 orbiter en route to solar observation point

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