Chinese Probe Lands on Moon’s Far Side to Collect Samples for Return

After touching down on the moon’s far side, China’s Chang’e-6 lander is collecting samples to bring back to Earth — and sending back imagery documenting its mission.

Chang’e-6, which was launched May 3, went through weeks’ worth of in-space maneuvers that climaxed with its weekend landing in the moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin region. The mission plan calls for the probe to collect samples of lunar soil and rock over the course of about two days, and then pack them up for the return trip.

If the operation is successful, Chang’e-6 would bring back the first fresh lunar samples ever collected on the moon’s far side — following up on the Chang’e-5 mission in 2020, which returned samples from the moon’s Earth-facing side.

The China National Space Administration said the lander used its onboard camera during its powered descent to detect obstacles autonomously and select a safe landing site. Chang’e-6 captured video imagery during the final phase of the lander’s descent and transmitted the views back to Earth. One video frame shows the shadow of the lander itself moments before touchdown.

Chang’e-6 is built to collect samples using a drill and a robotic arm. It’s also expected to gather scientific data about its surroundings using a radon detector, a negative-ion detector and a mini-rover. During surface operations, data and telemetry are being relayed between Chang’e-6 and Earth via China’s Queqiao-2 satellite.

Up to 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of lunar samples will be stowed inside the lander’s “ascender” stage. The rocket-powered ascender will then lift off from the surface and transfer the samples to the Chang’e-6 orbiter, which is currently in lunar orbit. Following the model set by Chang’e-5, the orbiter will head back toward Earth and release the sample capsule for atmospheric re-entry and touchdown in Inner Mongolia.

An image captured by a camera aboard the Chang’e-6 lander shows the spacecraft’s shadow on the lunar surface just moments before touchdown. (Credit: CLEP / CNSA)

The moon’s south polar region is of particular interest because it’s thought to harbor reserves of water ice that could support lunar settlement. Studying fresh samples from the South Pole-Aitken Basin could help scientists and mission planners learn more about the region’s resources.

Chang’e-6 is the latest spacecraft in an international armada of moon landers — including Russia’s Luna 25, iSpace’s Hakuto-R and Astrobotic’s Peregrine, which were unsuccessful, plus more fruitful missions such as India’s Chandrayaan-3, Japan’s SLIM and Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus.

Coming attractions include NASA’s VIPER rover, which is currently due to be delivered to the moon late this year; and China’s Chang’e-7 mission, which features a hopping probe and is set for launch in 2026. Looking further ahead, China aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface by 2030 — not long after NASA’s Artemis 3 crewed lunar landing, currently scheduled for 2026.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of 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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