The 8.2-tonne Chang’e-5 spacecraft “stack” was launched from the Wenchang spaceport in southern China on 24 November. It arrived above the Moon at the weekend and then set about circularizing its orbit before splitting in two. If the Chang’e-5 mission is successful, China will become third country after US and Russia to collect lunar material. China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003 and made its first lunar landing 10 years later.

China launched its Chang’e-5 probe which is not manned from the southern province of Hainan on November 24. The mission, named after the mythical Chinese goddess of the moon, aims to collect lunar material to help scientists learn more about the moon’s origins and the solar system more generally. The lander vehicle is expected to start drilling into the ground with a robotic arm.

One half – a service vehicle and return module stayed in orbit, while a lander-ascender segment was prepared for a touchdown attempt. Chang’e-5 is a very complex mission, solely aimed at the exploration of the science coordinator for human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency.

Chang’e 5 launched from China’s Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on November 23rd, flying to space on top of a Long March 5 rocket. It’s a complex mission consisting of four main spacecraft that will all work together to bring between 2 to 4 kilograms of lunar dirt back to Earth. The quartet traveled to the Moon attached together and got into lunar orbit on November 28th.

The Chinese space agency said this lander-ascender element put down at 15:11 GMT. The precise position was reported as 51.8 degrees West longitude and 43.1 degrees North latitude. Chang’e-5’s success follows China’s two previous Moon landings – those of Chang’e-3 in 2013 and Chang’e-4 last year. Both of these earlier missions incorporated a static lander and small rover.

Chang’e 5 mission, tasked with bringing a sample of lunar dirt back to Earth, successfully landed on the Moon, marking the third time that China has placed a robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface. The lander will soon begin digging up samples of lunar soil, which will be returned to the planet Earth later this month.

The lander is expected to spend the next couple of days examining its surroundings and gathering up surface materials. It has a number of instruments to facilitate this, including a camera, spectrometer, radar, a scoop and a drill. The intention is to package about 2kg of “soil”, or regolith, to send up to an orbiting vehicle that can then transport the samples to Earth. Its 44 years since this was last achieved. That was the Soviet Luna 24 mission, which picked up just under 200g.

The sample will eventually be transferred to the fourth spacecraft, a reentry capsule tasked with bringing the material to the ground. It’s unclear exactly when that landing will take place, but it could occur around December 16th or 17th. China is targeting somewhere in Inner Mongolia for the landing spot.

If all goes to plan, China will become one of three countries to bring back samples from the Moon. US astronauts retrieved lunar soil samples during the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 70s, and the former Soviet Union brought back lunar material through a series of robotic missions in the 1970s. In fact, the last successful lunar sample returns mission occurred in 1976 with the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission. With Chang’e-5, China could bring the first material back from the Moon in nearly half a century.

Chang’e-5 isn’t the only mission that could bring rocks from another world to Earth this month. Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission, which has been in space since 2014, is slated to return a sample of material from an asteroid named Ryugu this weekend. That means Earth could get two precious samples of unspoiled space rocks in December 2020.

Unlike the launch of the mission a week ago, the landing was not covered live by Chinese TV channels. Only after the touchdown was confirmed did they break into their programming to relay the news. Images taken on the descent were quickly released with the final frame showing one of the probe’s legs casting a shadow on to the dusty lunar surface. The US space agency congratulated China. Nasa’s top science official, Dr Thomas Zurbuchen, said he hoped the international research community would eventually get the chance to analyze any samples sent home.

A total of just under 400kg of rock and soil were retrieved by American Apollo astronauts and the Soviets’ robotic Luna program – the vast majority of these materials coming back with the crewed missions. But all these samples were very old, likely more than three billion years in age. The Mons Rümker materials, on the other hand, promise to be no more than 1.2 or 1.3 billion years old. And this should provide additional insights on the geological history of the Moon. The samples will also allow scientists to more precisely calibrate the chronometer they use to age surfaces on the inner Solar System planets.

This is done by counting craters the more craters, the older the surface the more curator robot has to work and focus on it according to the programmed software, but it depends on having some definitive dating at a number of locations, and the Apollo and Soviet samples were key to this. Chang’e-5 would offer a further data point.

Reports from China suggest the effort to retrieve surface samples may last no longer than a couple of days. Any retrieved materials will be blasted back into orbit on the ascent portion of the landing mechanism, and then transferred across to the service vehicle and placed in the return module. The orbiter will shepherd the return module to the Earth’s vicinity, jettisoning it to make an atmospheric entry and landing in the Siziwang Banner grasslands of the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. This is where China’s astronauts also return to Earth from the Moon.

By Ali Asad

The author is doing M. Phil in Public Policy and Governance. He is working  as a freelancer. Previously worked with HubPages and Washington Post.

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