Categories: Moon

China’s Chang’e-5 Probe Is Off to Bring Back a Moon Sample — and NASA Hopes to See the Data

China’s Chang’e-5 probe is on its way to the Moon for a mission that could bring back the first samples of lunar rocks and dirt in more than 40 years.

The 8.2-metric-ton spacecraft was sent into space from south China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center at 4:30 a.m. local time November 24th (20:30 Universal Time November 23rd) atop a Long March 5 rocket.

Like China’s previous lunar probes, Chang’e-5 is named after a moon goddess in Chinese mythology. This probe consists of an orbiter, a lander, an ascent vehicle and a re-entry capsule.

The craft is following an Earth-Moon transfer trajectory that should get it to lunar orbit five days after launch. On November 29th or so, the paired lander and ascent vehicle are expected to separate from the orbiter and touch down on a lava dome known as Mons Rümker.

The mound is thought to contain rocks that formed relatively recently in geological terms — 1.2 billion years ago. Samples from such a region could yield the youngest rocks ever brought back from the Moon, and shed new light on recent phases of lunar geology.

Chang’e-5’s lander is designed to study its surroundings with cameras and scientific instruments, including a ground-penetrating radar and a spectrometer. The most important scientific payloads are a mechanical scoop and a drill that can go two meters beneath the surface.

Because the lander is solar-powered, all of the lunar surface operations will have to be completed in the course of two weeks, before the two-week-long lunar night begins at Mons Rümker.

Up to two kilograms of samples can be stowed on the ascent vehicle, which is due to blast off from the lunar surface in early December, make a rendezvous with the orbiter and transfer the material to the re-entry capsule.

If all goes according to plan, the orbiter will carry the capsule back from the Moon and drop it off as it flies past Earth in mid-December. The capsule is designed to weather atmospheric re-entry and make a parachute-aided touchdown in the deserts of Inner Mongolia.

The last time a probe brought back fresh samples from the Moon was back in 1976, thanks to the Soviet Luna 24 mission. NASA’s Apollo missions returned more than 800 pounds of lunar rock and soil for study on Earth between 1969 and 1972.

Peng Jing, the deputy chief designer of the Chinese moon probe, said Chang’e-5 could be considered a “milestone mission.”

“Its success will help us acquire the basic capabilities for future deep space exploration such as sampling and takeoff from Mars, asteroids and other celestial bodies,” China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Peng as saying.

NASA’s first opportunity to bring back lunar samples could come in 2024, if the Artemis program’s schedule for sending astronauts to the Moon and back holds firm. In September, NASA laid out a plan by which commercial space companies could store up samples on the Moon and then transfer ownership of that material to the space agency.

NASA took note of the Chang’e-5 launch in a tweet, and called on China to share mission data with the global scientific community:

NASA’s reference to sharing scientific data sparked a debate on Twitter over international space policy — including the fact that U.S. law rules out bilateral cooperation with China on space issues due to security concerns. At least one state-affiliated Chinese news outlet, the English-language Global Times, took umbrage over NASA’s request in a tweet:

Lead image: China’s Long March 5 rocket sends the Chang’e-5 probe into space. Credit: CNSA / CLEP

This is an updated version of a report originally published on Cosmic Log.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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