Pakistan’s lunar payload lifts off aboard Chinese mission

Published May 4, 2024
A LONG March-5 rocket, carrying the Chang’e-6 mission lunar probe, lifts off as it rains at the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern China’s Hainan province, on Friday.—AFP
A LONG March-5 rocket, carrying the Chang’e-6 mission lunar probe, lifts off as it rains at the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern China’s Hainan province, on Friday.—AFP

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s maiden lunar mission — iCube Qamar — embarked on its journey on Friday as part of a Chinese probe, which aims to collect samples from the far side of the moon, a world first as Beijing pushes ahead with an ambitious programme that aims to send a crewed lunar mission by 2030.

The iCube-Q orbiter, which carries two optical cameras to image the lunar surface, is a 7kg cube satellite or cubesat. Cubesats are miniature satellites typically characterised by their small size and standardised cubic design.

These satellites are used by academic institutes for experimental and research purposes in Low Earth Orbits, generally with an altitude of less than 1,000km. However, they are now finding many applications in higher orbits and deep space missions.

China launched the uncrewed spacecraft on a nearly two-month mission. The Long March-5, China’s largest rocket, blasted off at 5:27pm Beijing time (0927 GMT) from Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan with the more than 8 tonnes Chang’e-6 probe.

iCube Qamar miniature satellite part of Chang’e-6 probe aimed at collecting samples from far side of moon

Chang’e-6 is tasked with landing in the South Pole-Aitken Basin — one of the largest known impact craters in the solar system — on the far side of the moon, which perpetually faces away from the earth, after which it will retrieve and return samples. The launch marks another milestone in China’s lunar and space exploration programme.

The Chinese mission will employ lunar research payloads from multiple countries, including Pakistan’s iCube Qamar, which was designed by the Islamabad-based Institute of Space Technology (IST) in collaboration with China’s Shanghai University (SJTU) and Pakistan’s national space agency Suparco.

The launch was attended by scientists, diplomats and space agency officials from France, Italy, Pakistan, and the European Space Agency, all of which have moon-studying payloads aboard Chang’e-6.

Pakistan’s ambassador to China, Khalil Hashmi, IST’s Prof Qamarul Islam and other senior officials witnessed the launch. Congratulating the nation on this historic achievement, Ambassador Hashmi said the launch signifies yet another milestone and a good example of Pakistan-China cooperation in space exploration and research.

iCube Qamar

The IST said the opportunity to release the cubesat in lunar orbit from Chang’e-6 mission was offered by the China National Space Agency (CNSA) through the Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation (APSCO). After a thorough evaluation, Pakistan’s proposal was accepted out of all APSCO member states.

ICube-Q carries two cameras as payload for imaging lunar surface and earth/moon images from lunar orbit besides having three-axis altitude control for desired orientation, onboard computer, thermal control, telemetry and tele-command and payload data communication modules for connecting through deep space network.

The Chang’e-6 rocket will take five days to reach the moon’s orbit. ICube-Q will be deployed on May 8 in a carefully selected 12-hour elliptical orbit that will allow imaging of the desired lunar surfaces.

The IST is a federally chartered university that pioneered the development of cubesats in Pakistan by launching its first cubesat iCube-1 in Low Earth Orbit in November 2013.

According to Khurram Khurshid, the head of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at IST and co-lead on the satellite project, this is Pakistan’s first deep space mission which is a historic moment that would pave the way for launching other deep space missions in the future.

Operating in extreme temperatures as low as minus 100 degrees Celsius, the satellite features a one-megapixel camera tailored for missions with power constraints.

“Its surface-level analysis capabilities, transmitting images at a modest 1 kbps, will provide crucial data on crater locations, water, and traces of ice on the moon’s surface. These findings, obtained through various techniques, hold promise for global utilisation,” said Dr Khurshid, who is second to project director Dr Qamarul Islam.


President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif congratulated the nation on the successful launch of Pakistan’s maiden lunar mission.

According to the state-run broadcaster Radio Pakistan, President Zardari said the successful launch would be a “milestone” for Pakistan’s space programme.

He also commended the cooperation between Pakistan and China in aerospace.

PM Shehbaz hailed the iCube-Q satellite as “Pakistan’s first step in space” and said that Pakistani scientists and engineers were “proving their mettle … like the expertise they exhibited in the nuclear technology [programme]”.

The acceptance of Pakistan’s mission among eight countries was the recognition of the capabilities of the country’s scientists and experts, he added.

“This is a historic milestone in the technological development. By this achievement, Pakistan has entered a new era of exploring space for productive purposes,” the prime minister remarked.

PM Shehbaz said the achievement would help build Pakistan’s capacity in satellite communications besides opening up new avenues for scientific research, economic development and national security.

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar took to X (formerly Twitter) to “congratulate the young Pakistani students and scientists on the launch” of the lunar mission.

“Today’s launch from Hainan … is a good example of countries and organisations coming together for space cooperation and shared benefits,” he added.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2024



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