Venus orbiter, lunar constellation and exoplanet telescopes among candidates as China selects new space science missions

HELSINKI – The Chinese Academy of Sciences is preparing to select a new batch of space missions from proposals to explore the Earth, the Sun and the Solar System and the deeper universe as part of the New Horizons Program.

Concepts proposed in recent years were shortlisted from 13 candidate missions in four broad areas of space astronomy and astrophysics, exoplanets, heliophysics, and planetary and Earth sciences.

A committee of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is expected to select 5-7 missions for CAS’s third Strategic Priority Program Project (SPP III), also known as the New Horizons program, according to a new paper in Chinese Journal of Space Science.

Ranking and mission selection should be completed around mid-year and will depend on available budget, technology readiness and production schedule. Selected missions are likely to launch in 2026-2030, a period spanning China’s 15th Five-Year Plan.

The SPP III missions are somewhat different from those already claimed by China Chang’e (lunar) and Tianwen (planetary) exploration missions. under the auspices of the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

A number of the missions have already been highlighted in magazine articles and press reports, while little is known about some of the proposals.

Space astronomy and astrophysics

The field of space astronomy and astrophysics has three candidates. The improved synchronization of X-rays and polarimetry (eXTP) mission is a powerful X-ray observatory to monitor the sky and enable multi-message studies of gravitational wave and neutrino sources.

DArk Matter Particle Explorer-2 (DAMPE-2) will be a follow-up to the 2015 DAMPE satellite mission to search for possible evidence of dark matter annihilation or decay.

Finally, the detection of the sky at the longest wavelength (DSL) mission proposes to send an array of 10 small satellites into lunar orbit, using the moon as a shield from Earth interference, to study faint signals from the early universe.

Exoplanets

The exoplanet field has a pair of competing propositions. This is the Closeby Habitable Exoplanet Survey (CHES) and Earth 2.0 (ET) missions.

CHES aims to survey 100 Sun-like stars within 33 light-years using micro-arcsecond relativistic astrometry, while ET searches for Earth-sized exoplanets with similar orbits around Sun-like stars by photometric surveying. Both will operate at Sun-Earth Lagrangian point 2 (L2).

Heliophysics

There are currently four missions proposed to fly for the heliophysics field. SOlar Ring (SOR) will use three spacecraft, separated by 120°, orbiting one astronomical unit (AU) to study the Sun and the inner heliosphere.

The Solar Polar-Orbital Observatory (SPO) proposes to study the poles of the Sun orbiting at an inclination of more than 80 degrees with respect to the plane of the ecliptic. The Earth-Occult Solar Eclipse Observatory (ESEO) will orbit Sun-Earth L2 to study the inner corona.

The Chinese Heliospheric Interstellar Medium Explorer (CHIME) spacecraft candidate aims to provide the first in situ measurements of pristine interstellar gas and dust in their high-density regions 2-3 AU from the Sun.

Planetary and Earth Sciences

Finally, there are four candidate missions proposed to study deep questions related to planet Earth and other celestial bodies in the Solar System.

The E-type Asteroid Sample Return (ASR) aims to study the asteroid 1989 ML and delivering to Earth samples collected from up to three body sites approximately 0.6 kilometers in diameter.

The Venus Volcano Imaging and Climate Explorer (VOICE) concept is a Venus-orbiting mission to study the planet’s geological evolution, atmospheric thermochemical processes, surface-atmosphere interactions, and the potential for habitable environments and life in the clouds.

The Low Earth Orbit Climate and Atmospheric Components (CACES) satellites will focus on reference climate variables and atmospheric composition observations, while the Multiscale Ocean Surface Current Observation (OSCOM) mission is dedicated to the frontier of ocean multiscale dynamics and energy, satellite-based Doppler oceanography.

Earlier missions

SPP III is a continuation of the first Strategic Priority Program for Space Science, which saw the DAMPE, HXMT, Shijian-10 and Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) missions launched in 2015-2017.

The SPP II missions include Einstein Probedue to be launched next year, the All-Sky Electromagnetic Countermeasures Monitor (GECAM), launched in 2020, the Advanced Space-Based Solar Observatory (ASO-S) launching this year, and the Solar Wind, Magnetosphere and Ionosphere Linkage Explorer (SMILE) in collaboration with the European Space Agency.

Future opportunities

In addition, the New Horizon program supports preliminary and advanced research projects for future science mission concepts.

The first call for SPP III concept and technology development of future science mission candidates has been completed and more than 20 proposals have been submitted, including the Very Large Area Gamma-ray Space Telescope (POWER), Space Weather Research Program, Ceres Research Program, Gravity Experimental Satellite, etc.

SPP III is “an effective approach to promote China’s space activities and a major contribution to international space science and research,” according to the journal article authored by Wang Chi, director of the National Space Science Center (NSSC) at CAS, and colleagues.

The SPP selection process combines bottom-up and top-down space science mission selection methods from other space actors and institutions and can be considered somewhat analogous to that of NASA New frontiers program.

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