China plans mission to Moon to hunt for lunar rocks

Rodiano Bonacci
Novembre 24, 2020

China has successfully launched the Chang'e-5 lunar probe from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in the southern province of Hainan, state-run CGTN reported.

US space agency NASA says the mission's goal is to land in a previously unvisited area of the moon known as Oceanus Procellarum and operate for one lunar day, which lasts 14 earth days, and return a 2-kilogram sample of lunar soil, possibly from as deep as 2 meters.

State TV footage of the launch showed the rocket blasting off into a dark night and carrying the Chang'e-5 probe - named for the mythical Chinese moon goddess - with huge clouds of smoke billowing out underneath.

The last lunar mission to successfully bring back rock samples was that of the Soviet Union's Luna 24 spacecraft, in 1976, although that mission only managed to collect roughly one-third of a pound of lunar material. The spacecraft was launched by a Long March-5 rocket at 4.30 am (Beijing Time). If successful, "it would be the world's first unmanned sample return in 40 years", CGTN reported. About an hour later, Chang'e 5 opened its solar panels to provide its independent power source.

Spacecraft typically take three days to reach the moon.

The United States, which now has plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, landed 12 astronauts there in its Apollo programme over six flights from 1969 to 1972, and brought back 382 kg (842 pounds) of rocks and soil.

"Unmanned rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit will be a historic first".

Its eventual goal is to land an astronaut on the Moon. The implications of any surprising findings would inform research into the history of the Moon and the Earth, as well as the formation of extraterrestrial bodies.

The lander will collect moon samples and place them in a vessel aboard the ascender, which will dock with the orbiter and returner, orbiting the moon.

The samples will be transferred from the ascender to the returner, which will then carry them back to Earth.

Joan Johnson-Freese is a space expert at the U.S. Naval War College. Other countries planning to retrieve material from asteroids or even Mars may look to China's experience, he said.

Speaking to astronauts aboard the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft by video link in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, "the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger".

The mission is among China's boldest since it first put a man in space in 2003, becoming only the third nation to do so after the USA and Russian Federation.

China has just launched its Chang'e-5 lunar probe.

"Scientific needs and technical and economic conditions" would determine whether China decides to send a crewed mission to the moon, said Pei, whose comments were embargoed until after the launch. "I think future exploration activities on the moon are most likely to be carried out in a human-machine combination". Plans are also underway to launch a permanent space station by 2022, and send astronauts to the moon by the 2030s. China's unmanned Tianwen 1 spacecraft is expected to arrive at Mars around February 2021.

The Chang'e-5 mission is a big test of China's aerospace technology, and China is expected to pass it with flying colors. That has prompted China to start work on its own space station and launch its own programs that have put it in a steady competition with Japan and India, among Asian nations seeking to notch new achievements in space. China has a national plan aimed at joining the United States, Europe and Japan in the top ranks of technology producers, and the space program has been a major component of that. The rocket being used for the current launch failed on a previous launch attempt, but has since performed without a glitch, including launching Chang'e 4.

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