China launches first mission to collect Moon rock samples since 1976
The China National Space Administration is pressing ahead with its trailblazing lunar exploration program, following last year's historic Chang'e-4 touchdown with a new mission to bring Moon rocks back to Earth for study. The Chang'e-5 mission successfully lifted off from China's Hainan province earlier today (Nov. 23), and if all goes to plan, will return with the first samples collected since the Soviet Union's lunar program in the 1970s.
The Chang'e-5 mission follows in the footsteps of the Chang'e-3 spacecraft which visited the Moon in 2013, and the Chang'e-4 mission which became the first spacecraft to touch down on the far side of the Moon in January last year. Chang'e-4 is designed to study the makeup of the Moon from its surface by using penetrating radar, and while this is part of the brief for Chang'e-5, it is also designed to bring samples back for study here on Earth.
The 8.2-metric-ton spacecraft's lander module will make a soft landing and then use a drill and mechanical arm to to collect underground rocks and soil from the surface. It will then use a rocket to rejoin the re-entry module in orbit and hand off the samples, with the re-entry module to then carry them back to Earth. The China National Space Administration calls this one of the most "challenging endeavors China has ever embarked on."
If it can pull it off, it will make China just the third nation to bring lunar samples back to Earth for study, after the US and Russia. It will also be the first time lunar samples have made their way back to Earth since the Soviet Union's Luna-24 spacecraft returned with 170.1 g (6 oz) worth of Moon rocks and dust in 1976.
The mission lifted off successfully atop China's Long March 5 rocket today (Nov. 23), with the spacecraft to enter orbit around the Moon on November 28, according to Space.com. All going to plan, the samples are expected back on Earth in mid-December.