Chang'e-5 nails docking and transfers lunar samples for return to Earth
China’s landmark Chang’e-5 mission has passed another milestone, with the spacecraft’s lander successfully lifting off from the Moon to dock with the orbiter module after gathering samples from the surface. This marks a first for China, and sets the stage for the safe return of lunar samples to Earth for the first time since 1976.
The Chang’e-5 mission lifted off in late November and sent its lander-ascender module down to the surface of the Moon on December 1. From there, a solar wing and directional antenna were deployed along with a drill and mechanical arm, enabling the module to collect around 2 kg (4.4 lb) worth of Moon rocks and soil.
These were packed inside a vacuum-sealed container, before the module rocketed away from the Moon’s surface and today rejoined the return module in orbit. This was the first time China has carried out a docking procedure in lunar orbit, with the samples safely passed from the lander to the return module that will carry them back to Earth.
If this last leg of the journey proves equally successful, it will be the first time humans have collected samples from the Moon for study on Earth since the Soviet Union’s Luna-24 mission in 1976. The return module is expected to land in Inner Mongolia sometime in mid-December.