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A Ceres orbiter and a massive telescope are among the potential missions being considered by the Chinese Academy of Sciences to look for hints regarding the composition of dark matter. Under the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) Strategic Priority Program on Space Science (SPP), also known as the New Horizon Program, more than 20 candidates are competing for funding for additional study.

In the second half of 2022, it is anticipated that the National Space Science Center (NSSC) in Beijing would assemble a group of experts to examine these pre-phase A candidates and offer project priority recommendations. The chosen missions could then proceed with further research and possibly develop into missions during the following ten years.

An article on the development of the third round of SPP mission selection is named a few of the mission proposals in the Chinese Journal of Space Science. These include the Very Large Area Gamma-ray Space Telescope (VLAST), a program to study space weather, one to explore Ceres, and one to test gravity. The suggestions span a range of disciplines, including space biology, exoplanets, heliophysics, planetary science, and fundamental physics.

Most of the missions have few details currently known about them, but the Ceres and VLAST missions seem to have more specifics. The Ceres plan is believed to involve an orbiter with a ground-penetrating radar as its primary payload that would focus on the “origin of Ceres and its subsurface ocean and volcanic geological activity.”

NASA’s Dawn mission, which was launched in 2007 and was authorized under the Discovery Program, is the only spacecraft to have visited Ceres too far. Ceres is known to be an ocean world with probable ongoing geological activity, and its potential habitability may yet be determined. The expedition might offer fresh perspectives in these fields, advancing knowledge of Ceres and, indirectly, other ocean worlds and volatiles throughout the solar system.

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Along with the DAMPE mission, which was started in 2015, VLAST would look for signs of dark matter in gamma ray emissions. Additionally, it would measure cosmic rays and do mega- and giga-electron volt gamma ray astronomy. The Fermi Large Area Telescope’s sensitivity is predicted to grow by a factor of 10 thanks to VLAST, according to research published in Acta Astronomica Sinica in May of this year. A Long March 5 rocket would be required to launch the roughly 16-ton observatory.

As part of the SPP III series of missions, the CAS is currently examining 13 missions for potential execution between 2025 and 2030. From among the candidates, 5-7 missions in the areas of planetary and Earth science, exoplanets, heliophysics, and space astronomy and astrophysics will be chosen. A Venus orbiter, a lunar astronomy constellation, exoplanet search missions, ocean and climate missions, and solar observatories are examples of candidates. According to the journal article, SPP III is an “effective way to boost China’s space operations, and make significant contributions to international space science and exploration.”

The creation of the New Horizons Program demonstrates China’s interest in developing medium-class missions in addition to its flagship Chang’e lunar and Tianwen deep space missions, and depending on the mission choice, China may expand its deep space research. The Chang’e and Tianwen missions, which are ostensibly overseen by the China National Space Administration, are somewhat distinct from and in addition to the projected CAS missions (CNSA). In 2020, Tianwen-1 was launched, carrying a rover and an orbiter for Mars. While Tianwen-3, which would aim to gather samples from Mars and bring them to Earth, will launch in 2028, Tianwen-2 will be a combined near-Earth asteroid sampling and comet rendezvous mission that will take off in 2025.

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Around 2030, Tianwen-4 will launch a pair of spacecrafts in the direction of Jupiter. One will explore the Jovian system and orbit Callisto, while the other will use gravity to accelerate toward a flyby of Uranus. A prior Strategic Priority Program on Space Science saw the launch of the DAMPE, HXMT, Shijian-10, and Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) missions between 2015 and 2017. SPP III is the follow-up to that program. The SPP II missions are the Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory (ASO-S), which will launch this year, the Electromagnetic Counterpart All-sky Monitor (GECAM), which will launch in 2020, the Einstein Probe, scheduled to launch the following year, the Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE), developed in partnership with the European Space Agency.

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