The China National Space Administration (CNSA) last week launched its sixth lunar mission—the Chang’e-5 probe—in hopes of collecting moon rock samples.
“The sixth mission in the Chang’e program, Chang’e-5 will be one of the most difficult and challenging endeavors China has ever embarked on,” China Daily reported, via an article published by CNSA. The probe will attempt to collect 4.5 pounds of Moon dust from the previously unvisited Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”), according to Reuters.
If successful, Chang’e-5 will become the first space operation in more than 40 years to return lunar samples to Earth. “It’s findings will facilitate scientists’ research on the Moon’s origin and evolution,” according to the newspaper.
Once Chang’e-5 reaches lunar orbit, its four components should separate—the orbiter and re-entry module continuing to float in space while the lander and ascender sink to the Moon’s surface, where they’ll get to work gathering surface soil and drilling for underground rocks. Once complete, the ascender rockets back into orbit to dock with and transfer samples to the re-entry module, which will then carry the precious Moon dust back to Earth.
The risky mission is worth the reward. A successful trip will make China the third nation in the world to bring home lunar specimens, after the US and Russia. It would also establish Chang’e-5 as the world’s first lunar sample-return mission since August 1976, when the former Soviet Union’s unmanned Luna-24 brought 170.1 grams of lunar samples back to Earth.
China made cosmic history early last year when it soft-landed a spacecraft in the giant Aitken Basin crater on the far side of the Moon. The country was able to communicate through its Queqiao lunar satellite, launched in 2018.