An effort to return lunar rocks to Earth for the first time in decades was launched as part of China’s Chang’e 5 mission.
Following the success of the Chang’e 4 mission that revealed more about the dark side of the moon, Chang’e 5 is set to take lunar exploration a step further. Blasting off yesterday (23 November), Reuters reported that China’s latest moon mission aims to collect lunar rocks that will be returned to Earth and analysed to better understand how the moon came to be.
If successful, this will be the first time lunar rocks have been brought back to Earth since the 1970s. It would also make China the third country to retrieve lunar samples, after the US and the Soviet Union.
Once Chang’e 5 enters the moon’s orbit and attempts a landing – expected within the next week – the spacecraft will deploy two more vehicles including a lander and an ascender. Once the probe successfully touches down on the lunar surface, it will stay there for two days out of a total mission time of 23 days.
The more direct method
The rocks and lunar samples will be collected by the lander craft using a robotic arm and deposited in the ascender craft. When launched from the surface, the ascender will reconnect with the orbiting spacecraft ahead of its return to Earth. Chinese scientists will be waiting in the Inner Mongolia region to collect the samples once the craft lands.
Pei Zhaoyu, a spokesperson for the mission and director for the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center at the China National Space Administration, said it will be a challenging mission.
“We can conduct sampling through circumlunar and moon-landing exploration, but it is more intuitive to obtain samples to conduct scientific research – the method is more direct,” he said. “Plus, there will be more instruments and more methods to study them on Earth.”
China was the first country to successfully land a spacecraft – the Yutu 2 rover – on the far side of the moon in 2018, and findings from this mission were reported earlier this year. Using lunar penetrating radar, the rover sent radio signals 40 metres deep into the surface of the moon to reveal more information about its history.