China launches first mission to collect Moon rock samples since 1976

James Marshall
November 24, 2020

The China National Space Administration is pressing ahead with its trailblazing lunar exploration program, following last year's historic Chang'e-4 touchdown with a new mission to bring Moon rocks back to Earth for study.

Chang'e-5 will launch on a Long March 5 rocket at approximately 4:35 a.m. local time (or 7:35 a.m. AEDT on Tuesday for those of us in Australia.) According to Nature, the craft was actually supposed to take off in 2017 but was delayed after a rocket engine failure.

The Chang'e 5 probe, named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, will seek to collect material that can help scientists understand more about the moon's origins and formation.

The United States, which now has plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, landed 12 astronauts there in its Apollo programme over six flights from 1969 to 1972, and brought back 382 kg (842 pounds) of rocks and soil.

This is the China's first sample return mission, which has been one of China's most complicated and hard space tasks by far. The lunar probe, which weighs over eight tons, is comprised of four parts: an orbiter, a returner, an ascender and a lander.

After being captured by the Moon's gravity, the spacecraft will enter the lunar orbit, which is about 200 kilometers from the Moon.

Within 48 hours of the lander-ascender's touchdown, its robotic arm will scoop up rocks from the surface, and a drill will bore into the ground to collect soil. According to NASA, the ascender will then dock on the service capsule, at which point the samples will be transferred to the return capsule.

If you miss the action, you can always watch a mother live stream capturing the moment the sample is returned to Earth.

When the geometric relationship between Earth and the moon is suitable, the orbiter will carry the returner back to the planet. The samples will be sealed and transferred to a capsule expected to land in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, a northern province, around Dec 15.

The whole flight will last more than 20 days.

Speaking to astronauts aboard the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft by video link in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, "the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger". Plans are also underway to launch a permanent space station by 2022, and send astronauts to the moon by the 2030s. It can only stay one lunar daytime, or about 14 days, because it lacks the radioisotope heating units that China's current lunar rover, the Chang'e 4, possesses to withstand the moon's freezing nights. To pave the way for manned lunar exploration and deep space exploration, the Chang'e-5 mission will use a sampling method different from those of the United States and the Soviet Union, Pei said.

September 2011: China's first space laboratory the Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace 1" is launched to conduct docking and orbit experiments. The samples will mostly be stored at the Chinese Academy of Sciences National Astronomical Observatory of China in Beijing.

The new superpower is looking to finally catch up with the USA and Russian Federation after years of belatedly matching their space milestones. By then calibrating the age to crater density, he said, it could set the stage to "give us a better handle on dating rocks on the rest of the surface of the moon and other rocky bodies", including Mercury and Mars.

The scientific goals of the Chang'e-5 mission include the investigation of the landing area to obtain the on-site analysis data related to the lunar samples, as well as systematic and long-term laboratory analysis of the lunar samples.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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