Chang’e-5-T1, which is a lunar swingby mission that looks very much like a dry-run for a manned mission as it uses a return capsule based on the Shenzhou descent module (only smaller), blasted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center today. The mission profile is strongly reminiscent of the Zond lunar swingby missions of the late 1960s, where the Soviets lobbed modified Soyuz descent modules around the Moon in the run-up to a manned mission. Unfortunately, their larger rocket (necessary for the heavier crewed flight) never entered service, and the capsules found it trickier than expected to nail the double-skip reentry; only one made a survivable entry, and because it was off-target, the tracking ships transmitted a self-destruct signal to prevent capture by hostile nations. China is likely preparing to do what the USSR was trying to do, and become the second nation to send humans to the Moon.
You may have noticed there was no Chang’e 4; this is because Chang’e 4 was a backup for Chang’e 3. Since that mission achieved its objectives of landing on the Moon, the spare was not required. Chang’e 5-T1, meanwhile, is actually a test vehicle in preparation for the real Chang’e 5, which will fly in 2017 and will include a robotic lander and sample return system.
Meanwhile, hitchhiking on the rocket was the 4M spacecraft. Strapped to the Long March 3C/G2 rocket’s upper stage, the 4M spacecraft is the first commercial mission sent into deep space, built by European company LuxSpace. It will send human-readable messages on amateur radio frequencies for the duration of its mission, as the upper stage flies past the Moon and into heliocentric orbit. In addition, it carries an instrument for measuring radiation. It is not really intended as a scientific instrument, though, but rather as a curiosity to encourage amateurs and students around the world to become involved in spaceflight as the industry becomes more accessible and the projects more achievable by the amateur.
This was the first flight of the Long March 3C/G2 vehicle. I’ll post a launch video if/when one becomes available. 😉