China’s new moon mission to return the first lunar samples since 1976


China is attempting its most complex and ambitious space mission to date with the launch of its Chang’e-5 spacecraft, which will attempt to do something that has not been done since the 1970s: bring pristine pieces of the moon back to Earth.

On November 23 at around 3:30 p.m. ET, a Long March 5 rocket lifted off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, on the coast of China’s Hainan Island, carrying the 8.2-ton spacecraft. After separating from the rocket, Chang’e-5 will use its own thrusters to make the estimated four-day trip to the moon. The spacecraft will then release a lander that will touch down near a volcanic mound called Mons Rümker in the northwest region of the lunar near side. There, it will drill and scoop samples from the surface and store them in a protective capsule.

An ascent module on the lander will then launch that capsule back into orbit around the moon, hopefully carrying around 4.5 pounds of lunar material. Finally, the orbiting spacecraft will collect the capsule and return it to Earth, sending it on a high-speed reentry to land in Mongolia at the end of the roughly 23-day-long mission.

The returned lunar samples will “absolutely add new knowledge of the history of the moon,” says Long Xiao, a planetary scientist at the China University of Geosciences. Of particular interest is the moon’s volcanic activity, which scientists once thought lasted for a little more than a billion years following the moon’s formation 4.5 billion years ago. Now, scientists studying craters on the moon believe magma continued to erupt and flow in some regions until much more recently, erasing signs of some ancient craters and leaving behind younger volcanic rock.

The rocks sent back by Chang’e-5 “will ask us to rethink about why and how the moon’s volcanic history lasted this long,” Long says.

First approved in 2004, Chang’e-5 is a long-anticipated chapter in China’s lunar exploration plans. The Long March 5 rocket, designed with this mission in mind, required numerous breakthroughs in rocket technology, built with China’s most powerful engines and a new structural design. The heavy-lift vehicle failed during its second launch in July 2017 due to an issue with one of the engine’s turbopumps, delaying Chang’e-5 by three years.

Now that the ambitious mission is finally on its way, China is making a bold step in the new global era of lunar exploration.

“It seems like the spacefaring countries of the world now view the moon as a place for long-term exploration and potentially exploitation and settlement,” says John Logsdon, a space historian and professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.


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