Launching next week (October 23rd to be precise) from China's Xichang Satellite Launch Center is Chang’e 4 which will be paving the way for Chang’e 5 - an experimental, recoverable probe that will go to lunar orbit and back. Chang’e 4’s mission involves validating re-entry technology for Chang'e 5, a future robotic mission that will land on the moon, collect samples and return those specimens to Earth.
Perhaps you recall Chang’e 3 – the nation of China’s first Moon Lander & Rover that made a successful journey to the Moon in 2013. The Chang’e 4 was Chang’e 3’s backup but will be altered to verify technologies needed for Chang’e 5 which is considered the third step in China’s methodical quest for a moon-landing.
*Remember – there are a number of steps to any space travel. Some have been eliminated by the early Mercury missions having proven the necessary feats possible and even further back some were eliminated by the German scientists who prior to World War II when testing the V-2 rocket - but some remain in place and necessary prior to actual boots on the ground. (or Regolith)
The reason behind having a test orbiter is that there is a high speed re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere necessary for the return mission. A capsule has been specially designed for the reentry as there are specific concerns namely heat and the landing itself.
AND Chang’e 5? That is scheduled for 2018. If all goes according to plan Chang’e 5 will provide technological breakthroughs from the landing and take-off to the sample collection to the lunar-orbit rendezvous and docking and then the high speed reentry. A capsule for the reentry portion of the return trip will be waiting in lunar orbit for its hitchhiker. Once all aboard then there is the plunge into Earth’s atmosphere – not for the faint of heart. The speed intended for travel? 40,230 km/h (25000 mph). A parachute to Earth will complete the mission onto Earth. Then comes the really fun stuff – the science.
So the newest probe from China heads to the Moon next week – watch the skies; and keep watching them as the Moon will likely get crowded quickly!