China has landed a robotic spacecraft on the moon, Xinhua, the official statenews agency reported on Tuesday. The probe will spend two days gathering rocks and dirt from the lunar surface, with the goal of returning the first cache of moon samples to Earth since 1976.
The spacecraft, Chang’e-5, was the third successful uncrewed moon landing by China since 2013, when Chang’e-3 and its Yutu rover became China’s first visitor to make a lunar soft landing. In 2019, Chang’e-4 landed on the moon’s far side, the first spacecraft from Earth to ever do that. At least three more Chang’e moon landers are planned for the coming decade, ahead of China’s aspiration of building a moon base for astronauts in the 2030s.
A Long March 5 rocket carrying the probe launched on early last Tuesday from a site on China’s southern Hainan Island. In an unusual move for China’s typically secretive space program, the liftoff and journey to orbit was covered live by state broadcasters, complete with footage made by cameras mounted on the rocket. The live program suggests the Communist Party has growing confidence in the country’s space program.
If the operations on the moon and the return to Earth are successful, China will be only the third nation to bring lunar samples here. NASA astronauts accomplished that feat during the Apollo moon landings, as did the Soviet Union’s Luna robotic landers, ending with Luna 24 in 1976. Those samples made major contributions to the understanding of the solar system’s evolution, and planetary scientists have eagerly waited for additional samples.
After the spacecraft entered orbit around the moon, Chang’e-5 was split into two: the lander now on the surface and an orbiter that awaits its return. The spacecraft braked and successfully entered an elliptical orbit on Saturday, and braked again on Sunday to enter a nearly circular orbit, according to CCTV, the state television network. Additional maneuvers on Monday and Tuesday prepared the landing spacecraft for its descent to the surface.
The lander touched down at Mons Rümker, a volcanic plain on the moon’s near side that is estimated to be around 1.2 billion years old. That is considerably younger than the places explored by Apollo and Luna, which were all more than three billion years old.
The lander will need to accomplish its drilling and scooping tasks within a single lunar day, which lasts 14 Earth days. It is not designed to survive the frigid and dark lunar night.
The Chang’e-5 lander includes a small rocket, and before the sun sets, it will blast off with the rock and soil samples. This rocket will rendezvous and dock with the orbiting spacecraft for the journey back to Earth. The samples will be transferred to the orbiter for the journey back to Earth.
The sample is scheduled to land in China’s Inner Mongolia region in the middle of December.
The young age of the samples could prove valuable to scientists on Earth, who can use them to better calibrate techniques for estimating the ages of geological surfaces on planets, moons and asteroids throughout the solar system.
The specimens may also help scientists test hypotheses about what caused the volcanism evident in the region of the moon where Chang’e-5 landed.
Coral Yang contributed research.