China has launched a robotic spacecraft to bring back rocks from the moon – the first such attempt by a country since the 1970s.
The Long March-5, China’s largest carrier rocket, took off at 4.30 a.m. Beijing time on Tuesday from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island, carrying the Chang’e-5 spacecraft. .
The Chang’e-5 mission, named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, will seek to collect lunar material to help scientists better understand the origins and formation of the moon. The mission will test China’s ability to remotely acquire samples from space before more complex missions.
If successful, the mission would make China the third country to have recovered lunar samples, joining the United States and the Soviet Union.
Upon entering lunar orbit, the spacecraft is intended to deploy a pair of vehicles on the lunar surface: a lander and an ascender. The landing is expected to take place in about eight days, according to Pei Zhaoyu, a spokesperson for the mission. The probe is expected to be on the lunar surface for about two days, and the entire mission is expected to last about 23 days.
The plan is for the lander to pierce the lunar surface and clear out soil and rocks using a robotic arm. This material would be transferred to the tracer vehicle, which must transport it from the surface and then dock with a module in orbit.
The samples would then be transferred to a return capsule for the trip to Earth, with a landing in the Inner Mongolia region of China.
“The biggest challenges … are the work of sampling on the lunar surface, takeoff from the lunar surface, the rendezvous and docking in the lunar orbit, as well as the high-speed re-entry to Earth”, said Pei, who is also director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of China’s National Space Administration.
“We can sample through circumlunar exploration and moon landing, but it’s more intuitive to get samples to do scientific research – the method is more straightforward,” Pei added. “In addition, there will be more instruments and more methods to study them on Earth.”