Predicting the future, especially of something subject to the winds of political misfortune as space exploration, is problematic. However, it’s a safe bet it won’t look like it did during the first few decades. More nations than ever are interested in sending spacecraft into orbit and beyond (including crewed spaceships), and privately-owned companies are taking a larger stake. As I noted recently, India sent its first space probe to Mars, and the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) went to the Moon aboard an Orbital Sciences Minotaur V rocket (itself a converted ballistic missile). And last week, a private company based in Luxembourg sent a small probe (really a communications experiment) to the Moon aboard a Chinese rocket.
Private companies have been involved with spaceflight from very early days, albeit largely as contractors. Today, many companies are jostling to take on many roles: servicing the International Space Station, building the next generation of rockets, and designing spacecraft to carry human passengers. These companies include SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Sierra Nevada Space Systems, and more.
These mostly focus on propulsion and transport, but 4M is a different concept. It is riding as an auxiliary payload in the Chang’e 5-T1 mission, so all the literal heavy lifting is done by the Chinese Long March rocket. Instead, the focus is on probe design and communications technology, as well as low cost. [Read more…]