First Privately Funded Moon Mission Launches on a Chinese Rocket

A Luxembourg company sends a payload where no amateur radio satellite has ever gone.

LUXSpace 4M.jpg
Artist’s conception of the 4M payload near the moon.

A Long March rocket scheduled to launch on Thursday to test technology for a future Chinese lunar mission will also carry a historic “hitchhiker”: the first privately funded payload sent to the moon. [Oct. 23 update: the rocket launched on time, and the payload is working perfectly,” according to project manager Ghislain Ruy.]

The Luxembourg-based company LuxSpace is attaching its “4M” payload to the upper stage of a Long March 3C rocket, whose main job is to launch a capsule that will round the moon and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speed to test the spacecraft’s protective heat shield. China plans to use such a capsule in 2017 for the Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission.

Ghislain Ruy, the 4M project manager at LuxSpace, had previous experience piggybacking small payloads on the Long March and other rockets, and jumped at this chance to include a low-cost amateur radio payload on the Chinese lunar test mission. The 30-pound instrument package is about the size of a flat-screen computer monitor, and is entirely self-contained, requiring almost no interaction with the launcher. The name stands for “Manfred Memorial Moon Mission,” in honor of Manfred Fuchs, the founder of  LuxSpace’s parent company OHB, who died last April. Fuchs had long dreamed of sending a spacecraft to the moon.

Twenty minutes after launch on October 23, (at 1:59 p.m. U.S. Eastern time), the Long March’s upper stage will separate from the test capsule, and both will continue on a trajectory that takes them around the moon. The capsule will return to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on October 31. In early discussions with the Chinese, LuxSpace was told that the upper stage would re-enter the atmosphere as well, but it’s now expected to enter a wide, looping orbit around Earth. The main battery is only designed to last 10 days, although it may go longer.

Radio receivers on Earth will be able to tune in to 4M’s signal shortly after separation, and will be able to follow it as it rounds the moon, coming as close as 7,500 miles to the surface. The payload also includes a radiation sensor that will take measurements throughout the journey into Earth-moon space. Anyone with the proper equipment will be able to receive the compressed radiation data and decode it.

LuxSpace will award prizes to groups and individuals who receive the most messages transmitted from 4M, as well as those who collect the most radiation data. Ruy can’t predict how many amateur radio hobbyists will participate, but hopes there will be at least 20 with the necessary equipment. A previous contest similar to this one, with a payload in Earth orbit, drew more than 2,000 people, he says. Receivers in the Southern Hemisphere will be better positioned to communicate with 4M.

Ruy sees the experiment as pioneering a new kind of crowd-sourcing for low-cost deep space missions. Other than the company’s own receiving station in Luxembourg, no other antennas have been contracted  to collect data. The project is counting on volunteers, and will use software invented more than a decade ago by Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Joe Taylor (who is also an amateur radio enthusiast), which allows amateur radio users to extract information even from very weak signals.

The entire mission has been done at very low cost—“in the six figures,” according to Ruy—and could serve as a model for future lunar and planetary CubeSat missions, where meaningful data could be captured by relatively cheap receiving stations on Earth, without having to rely on giant antennas like the Arecibo telescope or NASA’s Deep Space Network.