China successfully launched Long March-5, its largest carrier rocket, at 4.30 am Beijing time (2030 GMT on Monday) from Wenchang Space Launch Center on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, carrying the Chang’e-5 spacecraft.
Joining the space race, the Chinese robotic space spacecraft is supposed to bring back lunar rocks in its first attempt. If successful, “it would be the world’s first unmanned sample return in 40 years,” CGTN reported.
The spacecraft will return with the moon samples in mid-December. The US and the erstwhile Soviet Union had achieved this feat in the 1960s and the 1970s, respectively. And China would be the third country to do so.
China’s state-owned media, Global Times reported that about 2,200 seconds after lift-off, the Chang’e-5 lunar probe separated from the rocket and entered the Earth-Moon transfer orbit with the perigee at 200 km and the apogee at about 410,000 km.
The 23-day action pack mission has a two-day probe on the lunar surface. The mission is on a tight deadline because Chang’e 5 lander is solar-powered and won’t be able to operate at night.
According to Pei Zhaoyu, a spokesman for the mission, the landing is due to take place in about eight days. The stationary lander will study its environs with cameras, ground-penetrating radar, and a spectrometer.
The lander will drill into the lunar surface with a robotic arm to scoop out soil and rocks, about 4.4 lbs. (2 kg) of lunar material, some of which will be dug from up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) underground.
The material would be transferred to the ascender vehicle first, which would carry it from the surface and then dock with an orbiting module. The samples would be transferred to a return capsule for the return trip to Earth, with a landing in China’s Inner Mongolia region.
Pei, who is also the director of the space administration’s Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center, has said: “The biggest challenges… are the sampling work on the lunar surface, take-off from the lunar surface, rendezvous, and docking in the lunar orbit, as well as high-speed re-entry to Earth.”
“We can conduct sampling through circumlunar and moon – landing exploration, but it is more intuitive to obtain samples to conduct scientific research – the method is more direct,” Pei said. Besides, there will be more instruments and more methods to study them on Earth, he added.
The mission will land on a huge volcanic plain of the moon called Oceanus Procellarum (‘Ocean of Storms’). It harbors rocks that formed 1.2 billion years ago. Some portions of the area were explored by other missions, including NASA’s Apollo 12 in 1969.
Chang’e 5 “will help scientists understand what was happening late in the moon’s history, as well as how Earth and the solar system evolved,” Planetary Society, a non-profit, noted.
Space.com has underlined that the 382 kg of moon rocks brought home by the Apollo astronauts between 1969 and 1972 are considerably older, providing a window in the deeper lunar past.
Matt Siegler, a research scientist at the Arizona-based Planetary Science Institute, told Nikkei Asia that “it is very young for the moon — most of our samples are 3.5 billion years old or more”.
China has other space goals in its sights; it aims to have a permanently manned space station in service around 2022. Last year, it carried out the first landing on the far side of the moon and in July of this year launched a robotic probe to Mars.
In 2019, the Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the Chandrayaan 2 mission, to land on the south pole of the moon to carry out a search for water and minerals and as well as measurements of moonquakes. However, the lander deviated from the intended trajectory, causing a crash-landing.
Meanwhile, Russia will be returning to the moon after 45 years in 2021 with its Luna-25 spacecraft.
Earlier this year, the US had announced the Artemis Accord on 15 May and asked countries to join the treaty to explore the Moon with a new framework. As per the Artemis Accord, making “safety zones” for future lunar bases would prevent damage or interference from other rival countries or companies working in close areas.