Chinese Probe Collects Moon Samples and Heads for Earth

China says its Chang’e-6 spacecraft has gathered up soil and rocks from the far side of the moon and has lifted off from the surface, beginning a journey to bring the samples back to Earth. The probe’s payload represents the first lunar samples ever collected from the far side.

In a status update, the China National Space Administration said the Chang’e-6 ascent module successfully reached lunar orbit, where it’s due to transfer the samples to a re-entry capsule hooked up to the probe’s orbiter. (Update: CNSA says the ascent module made its rendezvous with the orbiter and transferred the samples to the re-entry capsule on June 6.)

If all goes according to plan, the orbiter will leave the moon’s orbit, head back to Earth and drop off the re-entry capsule for retrieval in China’s Inner Mongolia region sometime around June 25.

This mosaic of color images was taken by the panoramic camera on China’s Chang’e-6 lander, looking toward the north. One of the lander’s legs is seen in the foreground of the fisheye view, and the upper part of the image shows Chaffee Crater, north of the landing site. (Credit: CLEP / CNSA)

Chang’e-6 was launched on its mission on May 3 and landed in the South Pole-Aitken Basin region on June 2 (Beijing time). Using its drill and its robotic arm, the lander collected as much as 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rocks and soil from the landing site. Meanwhile, a mini-rover rolled out onto the surface and took pictures looking back at the lander.

CNSA said scientific readings were also collected, using a lunar mineral spectrometer, a negative ion analyzer, a radon detector and a lunar structure detector. An Italian-built retro-reflector, installed on the top of the lander, served as a position control point that can be used for distance measurement. Data and telemetry were transmitted back to Earth via China’s Queqiao-2 relay satellite.

“After the collection was completed, the five-star red flag carried by the Chang’e-6 lander was successfully unfolded on the far side of the moon,” CNSA said. “This is the first time that China has independently and dynamically displayed the national flag on the far side of the moon, The flag is made of new composite materials and special technology.”

The space agency said the Chang’e-6 ascent module lifted off at 7:38 a.m. June 4 Beijing time (11:38 p.m. GMT June 3) and fired its engine for about six minutes to reach lunar orbit. In the wake of the sample transfer on June 6, the orbiter and the re-entry capsule continued to circle the moon, “waiting for the right time to return for the lunar-to-Earth transfer,” CNSA said. The flight plan follows the model that was set in 2020 when Chang’e-5 brought back samples from the moon’s Earth-facing side.

The findings from Chang’e-6 could provide new insights about the moon’s south polar region. That area is of particular interest because it’s thought to contain water ice reserves that could support lunar settlement. NASA is targeting the south polar region for its upcoming VIPER rover mission — and for a crewed lunar landing that’s currently scheduled for 2026. China’s space program has its own ambitions for increased lunar exploration — including another robotic mission planned for 2026, known as Chang’e-7, and a crewed landing that it’s aiming to accomplish by 2030.

The lunar surface has been a popular destination for robotic probes over the past year or so. The successful missions include India’s Chandrayaan-3, Japan’s SLIM and Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus. Russia’s Luna 25, iSpace’s Hakuto-R and Astrobotic’s Peregrine were among the not-so-successful missions.

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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