China to launch moon probe, seeking first lunar rock retrieval since 1970s


Through: Reuters | Beijing |

Nov. 22, 2020, 2:18 p.m.

If successful, the mission will only make China the third country to collect lunar samples, after the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago. (Twitter / @ jasonrdavis)

China plans to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the moon this week to bring back lunar rocks in any country’s first attempt to recover samples from Earth’s natural satellite since the 1970s.

The Chang’e-5 probe, named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, will seek to collect evidence that can help scientists better understand the origins and formation of the moon. The mission will test China’s ability to acquire samples remotely from space, ahead of more complex missions.

If successful, the mission will only make China the third country to collect lunar samples, after the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago.

Since the Soviet Union crashed the Luna 2 on the moon in 1959, the first man-made object to reach another celestial body, a handful of other countries, including Japan and India, have launched missions lunar.

As part of the Apollo program, which first put humans on the moon, the United States landed 12 astronauts on six flights from 1969 to 1972, bringing back 382 kg (842 pounds) of rock and soil.

The Soviet Union successfully deployed three robotic sample return missions in the 1970s. The last, the Luna 24, recovered 170.1 grams (6 ounces) of samples in 1976 from Mare Crisium, or “Sea of Crises ”.

The Chinese probe, scheduled for launch in the coming days, will attempt to collect 2 kg (4 1/2 pounds) of samples in a previously unvisited area in a massive wash plain known as Oceanus Procellarum, or “Ocean of Storms”.

“The Apollo-Luna moon sampling area, while critical to our understanding, was undertaken in an area that includes much less than half of the lunar surface,” said James Head, a planetary scientist at the Brown University.

Subsequent data from orbital remote sensing missions showed a greater diversity of rock types, mineralogies, and ages than those represented in Apollo-Luna’s sample collections, he said.

“Lunar scientists have advocated robotic sample return missions in these many different critical areas in order to answer a host of fundamental questions that remain from earlier exploration,” Head said.

The Chang’e-5 mission can help answer questions such as how long the moon has been volcanically active inside and when its magnetic field – key to protecting all life from solar radiation – s ‘is dispelled.


Once in lunar orbit, the probe will aim to deploy a pair of vehicles to the surface: a lander will pierce the ground, then transfer its soil and rock samples to an ascender that will lift up and dock with an orbital module.

If this is successful, the samples will be transferred to a return capsule which will bring them back to Earth.

China made its first lunar landing in 2013. In January 2019, the Chang’e-4 probe landed on the other side of the Moon, the first from a national space probe.

Over the next decade, China plans to establish a robotic base station to conduct unmanned explorations in the south polar region. It is to be developed as part of the Chang’e-6,7 and 8 missions in the 2020s and extended during the 2030s before manned landings.

China plans to recover samples from Mars by 2030. In July, China launched an unmanned probe to Mars during its first independent mission to another planet.

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