China appears to be trying to rescue the ill-fated spacecraft from lunar oblivion

HELSINKI — Tracking data appears to show China is trying to salvage a spacecraft that was initially intended for the moon but was stranded due to a malfunctioning rocket stage.

The DRO-A and B spacecraft lifted off from the Xichang Spaceport aboard a Long March 2C rocket on March 13. Firstly Acknowledgment of the mission came from Chinese state media Xinhua, which announced that the spacecraft had not been precisely inserted into its designated orbit by the Yuanzheng-1S rocket's upper stage.

“The upper stage encountered a malfunction during flight, causing the satellites to fail to accurately enter the pre-set orbit,” Xinhua said. advertiser. “Relevant disposal work is currently underway,” she added, citing the Xichang Launch Center.

Data from the US Space Force's 18th Space Defense Squadron (SDS) initially showed objects associated with a launch into low Earth orbit (LEO). However, subsequent two line element (TLE) datasets, a mathematical representation of the satellite's average orbit, from 18 SDS, show an object from the launch (international designation 2024-048A) in a highly elliptical orbit of 525 x 132,577 km Earth's orbit. The issue has since been raised, as the spacecraft was tracked into a 971 x 225,193 km orbit on March 26.

This indicates that at least one satellite, and possibly both – if still attached to each other – have separated from the upper stage, and that the object's orbit has been raised.

“We don't know much, but I think we can tell from the tracking data that the payload (payload) separated from the YZ stage and burned at least one orbit indicating a mission rescue attempt.” said activity tracker and astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell Space news.

Neither state media nor Chinese space authorities reported that DRO-A and B were aiming to reach the moon. However, 2023 magazine paper The satellite's high-precision relative navigation technology of the same name indicates that the pair are aiming to enter a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) around the moon. Orbital data now confirm this.

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Destination: distant retrograde orbit

The DRO-A and B pair are designed to communicate from a distant retrograde orbit with another satellite, called DRO-L, in low Earth orbit. DRO-L was launched on a Jilong 3 rocket in February. DRO is a high lunar orbit that moves in the opposite direction to the Moon's rotation around the Earth.

China has not yet provided an update on the DRO-A and B satellites. The post-orbit burn, when the spacecraft is at perigee, or its closest approach to Earth, could raise its apogee, or furthest point from Earth, to lunar distance.

The spacecraft will then need to perform another burn to enter its intended lunar orbit. It is not known how the unplanned use of fuel to raise its orbit to reach the Moon would affect the mission.

The mission may be updated if the satellite or satellites enter its original planned lunar orbit. The closed nature of the mission in terms of information belies the openness while Astrobotic's Peregrine lander suffered problems during its ill-fated lunar mission.

The DRO-A/B mission does not appear to be a major part of China's lunar plans and its loss would not have a major impact on the country's exploration program. It is rather a technology and orbital test mission that could play a role in its broader lunar ambitions to create lunar navigation and communications infrastructure to support lunar exploration.

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It is also not the only new Chinese lunar mission. The Queqiao-2 lunar communications relay satellite was launched on March 19 as a precursor to the Chang'e-6 far-side sample return mission, scheduled for launch in May. Two smaller satellites, called Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2, were on board the launch as explorers of the broader Queqiao constellation plans.

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