Space Programme

The long journey home

Latest Chinese lunar mission is bringing Moon rocks back to Earth


Chang’e 5 on the Moon this week

China’s Chang’e 5 mission to collect rock samples from the Moon is a complex one involving multiple stages.

On Thursday evening it completed a key step – blasting off from the Moon’s surface right on schedule.

According to a video posted by the China Lunar Exploration Project (CLEP) the ‘ascender’ launched at 11.10pm, just under 48 hours after the Chang’e probe had landed on the Moon.

“It represented the first-ever Chinese spacecraft to take off from an extraterrestrial body,” Xinhua remarked proudly.

The Chang’e 5 mission represents a key step in China’s broader space plans which include the creation of a manned space station by 2022 and a manned lunar exploration centre in the following decade. China also has a rover – the Tianwen-1—on route to Mars.

The ongoing Chang’e mission is designed to prove China can carry out several key goals: it is the first Chinese lander to collect physical samples from the Moon, and the first of its three lunar vehicles to attempt a return to Earth.

The Chang’e landed on a raised area known as the Mons Rümker in the northwest part of the Moon’s near side. The surrounding area is known as the Oceanus Procellarum, or Sea of Storms.

The probe spent about 24 hours collecting regolith – the dusty, rocky crust that covers the moon – and then packed it into the ascender part of the probe in preparation for its departure. Less than 400 kilos of Moon samples have ever been brought back to Earth and this is the first new sample in over 40 years.

Collecting samples is technically tricky and expensive because a probe that returns to Earth needs to carry enough fuel for a two-way journey. The Chang’e 5 will get around that problem by breaking in two and only sending part back – an ascender-returner which is planned to dock with an orbiter 200km above the Moon’s surface, before jettisoning unwanted parts.

“We have accumulated experience and technology for China’s manned Moon landing and lunar base construction. Mankind will embark on a new journey to return to the Moon and finally achieve the abilty to to develop and utilise the Moon” Ouyang Ziyuan, the first chief scientist of the China Lunar Exploration Project told the Science and Technology Daily after the probe landed on Tuesday.

China’s increased activity in space has prompted other countries to initiate or reinvigorate their own space programmes. Though the US is now relying on Elon Musk’s Space X to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station, it also has plans to launch a manned Moon mission in 2024 – perhaps to demonstrate that is still one of the only countries that has that capability.

And last year the US formally established a separate ‘Space Force’ – a branch of the air force intended to protect the US and its allies in space.

Experts in the US have been following Chang’e 5’s progress carefully and NASA has even been sending pointed tweets reminding China that it did something similar.

“China has launched an effort to join the US and the former Soviet Union in obtaining lunar samples. We hope China shares its data with the global scientific community to enhance our understanding of the Moon like our Apollo missions did,” it said on the day of the Chang’e launch.

Geopolitics aside, however, the Chang’e is likely to return with some fascinating samples. The rock at the Mons Rümker protrusion is younger than in the areas previously sampled – a mere 1.3 billion years, compared to 3 billion. The hope is the new samples will throw new light on the Moon’s development. All going well, the return module is expected to make re-entry in the middle of December. Its designated landing point is Siziwang Banner in Inner Mongolia.

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