China Successfully Launches Chang’e-5 Mission to Retrieve Lunar Samples

China has successfully launched the Chang’e-5 space mission to collect lunar samples, making it the third country in the world to make such an attempt. If completed, this would be the first time that humans bring back rocks and dirt samples from the moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 robotic probe in 1976.

The Long March-5, China’s most powerful carrier rocket, blasted off at 4:30 a.m. Beijing time on Tuesday from the Wenchang space launch center in South China carrying the Chang’e-5 spacecraft.

The Chang’e-5 mission aims at achieving a series of scientific goals, including the investigation of the landing area, obtaining on-site analysis data related to the lunar samples, and laboratory analysis of the lunar samples themselves.

Chang’e-5 consists of an orbiter, a lander, an ascender and a returner, with a total takeoff mass of 8.2 tons. Upon entering the lunar orbit, the lander-ascender will separate from the orbiter-returner and touch down on the near side of the moon in early December, while the orbiter-returner will orbit about 200 km above the lunar surface.

Within 48 hours of landing, a robotic arm will extend to scoop up rocks and dirt samples from the lunar surface. About 2 kg of samples are to be collected and sealed in a container in the spacecraft to be brought back to the Earth.

According to the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the landing is due to take place in roughly eight days. The probe should remain on the lunar surface for about two days, and the entire mission is scheduled to last around 23 days.

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Named after Chinese legendary moon goddess Chang’e, the three-step lunar exploration program began in 2004. If the Chang’e-5 mission succeeds, the whole project would come to a successful conclusion, said Zhaoyu Pei, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the CNSA.

“The Chang’e-5 mission is expected to be a first for a lot of things,” said Mengfei Yang, the general director of the mission and chief designer of the spacecraft. “It will be the first time a Chinese space probe takes off from an extraterrestrial body, the first time a Chinese space probe collects and brings back extraterrestrial samples, the first unmanned rendezvous and docking of spacecrafts in lunar orbit, etc.”

The mission will help promote China’s science and technology development, and lay an important foundation for China’s future manned lunar landing and deep space exploration, Pei said.