China's Chang'e-5 lunar sampler makes it to the Moon
A landmark mission to collect rocks and dust from the surface of the Moon is progressing as planned, with China’s Chang’e-5 lander safely touching down on the lunar surface nine days after lift-off. If the next phases of the mission prove equally successful, it will be the first time lunar samples have been returned to Earth in 44 years.
The Chang’e-5 mission launched last week as the successor to the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) Chang’e-4 mission, which last year became the first spacecraft to touch down on the far side of the Moon. Chang’e-5 ups the ambition even further, looking to become the first spacecraft to retrieve dust and rocks from the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna-24 spacecraft in 1976.
The lander-ascender module of the spacecraft safely touched down north of the Mons Rümker volcanic complex on December 1. This involved using its variable thrust engine and obstacle avoidance to slow its descent and select a clear landing site on approach, with an onboard camera snapping some images as it neared the surface.
The lander-ascender module has now deployed its solar wing and directional antenna, with work now underway to collect the lunar samples using a drill and mechanical arm. This work is expected to last around two days and result in around 2 kg (4.4 lb) worth of rocks and soil, which will be packed inside a vacuum-sealed container aboard the module.
From there, the lander-ascender will rocket away from the surface and rejoin the re-entry module in orbit, which will then carry the precious samples back to Earth, arriving sometime in mid-December if all goes to plan.
The CNSA describes the Chang’e-5 mission as one of the most “challenging endeavors China as ever embarked on.” Associate Administrator of NASA Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen took to Twitter to weigh in on its success so far and congratulate the team.
Congratulations to China on the successful landing of Chang’e 5. This is no easy task. When the samples collected on the Moon are returned to Earth, we hope everyone will benefit from being able to study this precious cargo that could advance the international science community. pic.twitter.com/2xoKouf3dq— Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ) December 1, 2020