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China has landed its third probe on the Moon this Tuesday (December 1) in a daring mission to scoop up more than four pounds of lunar soil and rock. If successful, the mission will mark the first time since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976 that lunar rock samples make their way to Earth. The mission also highlights China’s ambition of becoming a superpower in space, rivalling the accomplishments of the US and Russia.
Named after the Chinese Moon goddess Chang’e, the probe launched on November 23 UTC from the Wenchang Satellite launch centre on Hainan Island.
Chang’e flew aboard China’s signature heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Long March 5 rocket.
On November 28, the probe fired its engines for 17 minutes to enter a 248 mile (400km) orbit of the Moon.
Just two days later, the lunar lander segment of the probe detached from the orbiter and made its way to the surface of the Moon.
Chang’e 5’s landing was confirmed on December 1, near Mons Rümker in the Oceanus Procellarum region of the Moon.
This geological feature is an ancient volcanic formation in the northwest region of the Moon’s near-side.
Shortly after landing, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) confirmed Chang’e 5 deployed its solar arrays antenna.
The CNSA also published two images of Chang’e on the Moon, snapped during descent and just after touch down.
Both images feature the fine, grey regolith that covers the surface of the Moon.
The second image, however, has caught the shadow cast by one of the lander’s legs.
China has previously landed the Chang’e 3 on the Moon in 2013 and the Chang’e 14 in 2019.
Why did China send a probe to the Moon?
The goal of China’s mission to the Moon is to collect about 4.4 pounds (2kg) of lunar rock and soil, and return it to Earth.
Part of the mission will involve digging about 6.6ft into the Moon to collect samples from below the surface.
Lunar scientists believe rocks collected in this part of the Moon are about 1.2 billion-years-old.
For comparison, the samples collected by NASA’s Apollo missions were 3.1 to 4.4 billion-years-old.
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But these will be the first pristine samples of lunar rock collected 44 years – since the Cold War between the US and USSR.
Scientists are hopeful the samples will help unravel new clues about the Moon’s origin, formation and volcanic history.
According to planetary geologist Xiao Lon at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, chances are these rocks could “rewrite the history of the Moon”.
And due to Chang’e 5’s limited energy supply, the probe will have no more than one lunar day – the equivalent of 14 Earth days – to complete its mission.
The collected samples will be transferred into the probe’s ascent stage and fired off back into orbit.
Once back in space, the ascent stage will rendezvous with the orbiter and transfer the samples to the return vehicle.
The ascent stage will then be ejected and the orbiter will head back towards Earth with a planned landing in inner Mongolia by December 17.
The US space agency NASA, which is planning its own missions to collect lunar rocks, tweeted on the day of Chang’e’s launch: “With Chang’e 5, China has launched an effort to join the US and the former Soviet Union in obtaining lunar samples.
“We hope China shares its data with the global scientific community to enhance our understanding of the Moon like our Apollo missions did and the Artemis program will.”
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