China launches first mission to collect Moon rock samples since 1976

Pablo Tucker
November 24, 2020

China has dramatically accelerated its space missions in recent years, after first launching an astronaut into space in 2003, decades after American astronauts' 1969 moon landing.

Landing is expected to occur in about eight days on the Mons Rümker, a mountainous region on the near side of the moon where scientists believe volcanic activity existed until around one billion years ago, according to Chinese state media.

"It not only needs to take off from the lunar surface and to re-enter the Earth atmosphere in higher speed but also to perform lunar orbit rendezvous and docking operations in lunar orbit", Chen told AFP.

Spacecraft typically take three days to reach the moon.

"As a result of this, I'm pretty optimistic that China can pull this off", he said.

And it plans to retrieve samples from Mars by 2030.

The failure forced the postponement of the launch of Chang'e-5, which was originally scheduled to collect moon samples in the second half of 2017.

Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China's "space dream", as he calls it, have been put into overdrive.

Launched as a single space craft, Chang'e 5 is actually composed of a lander, ascender, service module and return capsule.

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 materials will then be moved to the return capsule for the trip home to earth.

The technical complexity of Chang'e 5, with its four components, makes it "remarkable in many ways", said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the U.S. Naval War College. Later on, the mission will be divided into two parts: the orbiter and the returner will stay in the lunar orbit, while the ascender and the lander will head to the Moon.

"China is showing itself capable of developing and successfully carrying out sustained high-tech programs, important for regional influence and potentially global partnerships", she said.

Chang'e 5 is named for the Chinese moon goddess.

While many of China's crewed spaceflight achievements, including building an experimental space station and conducting a space walk, reproduce those of other countries from years past, the CNSA is now moving into new territory.

China's mission comes as NASA is pushing, under its Artemis program, to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. In July, it successfully sent China's first Mars probe Tianwen-1 into the Earth-Mars transfer orbit.

The official Xinhua news agency on Tuesday hailed the Chang'e-5 launch as a sign of China's leadership in space.

Following in the footsteps of the United States and Russia, China is striving to open a space station circling our planet. Japan has announced its participation in the program.

The spacecraft is expected to launch from Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island, China, early Tuesday local time, which will be about 3:25 p.m. ET on Monday, according to Space Launch Now, a site that tracks rocket launches around the world.

So how exactly will the mission work? China's one-party authoritarian system also allows for "prolonged political will that is often hard in democracies", she said.

Most of the samples will go to the Chinese Academy of Sciences National Astronomical Observatory of China (NAOC) in Beijing, Nature wrote, and it's unclear whether any arrangement can be reached for US scientists to gain access.

"A change in US policy regarding space co-operation is unlikely to get much government attention in the near future", Johnson-Freese said.

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