China’s Chang’e-6 Probe Drops Off Samples From Moon’s Far Side

Chang'e-6 sample return capsule and Chinese flag
A Chinese flag flies next to the Chang'e-6 sample return capsule after its landing in Inner Mongolia. (Credit: CCTV / CNSA via Weibo)

Three weeks after it lifted off from the far side of the moon, China’s Chang’e-6 spacecraft dropped off a capsule containing first-of-its-kind lunar samples for retrieval from the plains of Inner Mongolia.

The gumdrop-shaped sample return capsule floated down to the ground on the end of a parachute, with the descent tracked on live television. After today’s touchdown, at 2:07 p.m. local time (0607 GMT), members of the mission’s recovery team checked the capsule and unfurled a Chinese flag nearby.

Chang’e-6, which was launched in early May, is the first robotic mission to land and lift off again from the moon’s far side — the side that always faces away from Earth. It’s also the first mission to bring dirt and rocks from the far side back to Earth.

“The Chang’e-6 lunar exploration mission achieved complete success,” Zhang Kejian, director of the China National Space Administration, said from mission control. Chinese President Xi Jinping extended congratulations to the mission team, the state-run Xinhua news service reported.

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Chinese Probe Collects Moon Samples and Heads for Earth

Chang'e-6 lander on the moon, as seen by a mini-rover nearby
An image captured by a camera-equipped rover shows China's Chang'e-6 lander with its robotic arm and a Chinese flag. (Credit: CLEP / CNSA)

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.

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

Image of lunar surface
An image captured during the Chang'e-6 probe's descent shows lunar terrain. (Credit: CLEP / CNSA)

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.

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China is Going Back to the Moon Again With Chang'e-6

China's Chang'e-6 mission launches from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site. Credit: CGTN

On Friday, May 3rd, the sixth mission in the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e-6) launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in southern China. Shortly after, China announced that the spacecraft separated successfully from its Long March 5 Y8 rocket. The mission, consisting of an orbiter and lander element, is now on its way to the Moon and will arrive there in a few weeks. By June, the lander element will touch down on the far side of the Moon, where it will gather about 2 kg (4.4 lbs) of rock and soil samples for return to Earth.

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China Creates a High-Resolution Atlas of the Moon

The Geologic Atlas of the Lunar Globe. Credit: CAS via Xinhua handout

Multiple space agencies are looking to send crewed missions to the Moon’s southern polar region in this decade and the next. Moreover, they intend to create the infrastructure that will allow for a sustained human presence, exploration, and economic development. This requires that the local geography, resources, and potential hazards be scouted in advance and navigation strategies that do not rely on a Global Positioning System (GPS) developed. On Sunday, April 21st, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) released the first complete high-definition geologic atlas of the Moon.

This 1:2.5 million scale geological set of maps provides basic geographical data for future lunar research and exploration. According to the Institute of Geochemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the volume includes data on 12,341 craters, 81 impact basins, 17 types of lithologies, 14 types of structures, and other geological information about the lunar surface. This data will be foundational to China’s efforts in selecting a site for their International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) and could also prove useful for NASA planners as they select a location for the Artemis Base Camp.

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This Supernova Lit Up the Sky in 1181. Here’s What it Looks Like Now

A composite image of the remnant of supernova 1181. A spherical bright nebula sits in the middle surrounded by a field of white dotted stars. Within the nebula several rays point out like fireworks from a central star. G. Ferrand and J. English (U. of Manitoba), NASA/Chandra/WISE, ESA/XMM, MDM/R.Fessen (Dartmouth College), Pan-STARRS

Historical astronomical records from China and Japan recorded a supernova explosion in the year 1181. It was in the constellation Cassiopeia and it shone as bright as the star Vega for 185 days. Modern astronomers took their cue from their long-gone counterparts and have been searching for its remnant.

But it took them time to find it because they were looking for the wrong thing.

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A Giant Gamma-Ray Bubble is a Source of Extreme Cosmic Rays

An artist's depiction of a gamma-ray burst's relativistic jet full of very-high-energy photons breaking out of a collapsing star. Credit: DESY, Science Communication Lab

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are one of the most powerful phenomena in the Universe and something that astronomers have been studying furiously to learn more about their origins. In recent years, astronomers have set new records for the most powerful GRB ever observed – this includes GRB 190114C, observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2019, and GRB 221009A, detected by the Gemini South telescope in 2022. The same is true for high-energy cosmic rays that originate from within the Milky Way, whose origins are still not fully understood.

In a recent study, members of China’s Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory (LHAASO) Collaboration discovered a massive gamma-ray burst (designated GRB 221009A) in the Cygnus star-forming region that was more powerful than 10 peta-electronvolts (PeV, 1PeV=1015eV), over ten times the average. In addition to being the brightest GRB studied to date, the team was able to precisely measure the energy spectrum of the burst, making this the first time astronomers have traced cosmic rays with this energy level back to their source.

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China Tests an All-Solid Rocket

The launch of Gravity-1 from a modified cargo ship.
The Gravity-1 rocket blasts off, Haiyang, east China's Shandong Province, January 11, 2024. /CFP

China has a rich history in rocketry. It’s even found its place into Chinese legends with the wonderful tale of Wang Tu, who allegedly strapped himself to a chair adorned with rockets to experiment with rocket flight. The story goes that he launched and was never seen again! More recently however, a Chinese company has claimed to have launched the ‘World’s most powerful solid rocket’ capable of producing 600 tonnes of thrust and carrying 6,500kg into low Earth orbit. 

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Questions Remain on Chinese Rocket That Created an Unusual Double Crater on the Moon

A rocket body impacted the Moon on March 4, 2022, near Hertzsprung crater, creating a double crater roughly 28 meters wide in the longest dimension. Credits: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

In November, we reported how an impact on the Moon from a Chinese Long March rocket booster created an unusual double crater. For a single booster to create a double crater, some researchers thought there must have been an additional – perhaps secret – payload on the forward end of the booster, opposite from the rocket engines. But that may not necessarily be the case.

Other researchers feel the extra mass wasn’t anything secretive, but possibly an inert structure such as a payload adapter added to the rocket to support the primary mission payload.

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There are Mysterious Polygons Beneath the Surface of Mars

China's Zhurong rover on Mars
An image from China's Zhurong rover shows spacecraft hardware in the foreground and Martian terrain in the background. (Credit: CNSA)

China’s Zhurong rover was equipped with a ground-penetrating radar system, allowing it to peer beneath Mars’s surface. Researchers have announced new results from the scans of Zhurong’s landing site in Utopia Planitia, saying they identified irregular polygonal wedges located at a depth of about 35 meters all along the robot’s journey. The objects measure from centimeters to tens of meters across. The scientists believe the buried polygons resulted from freeze-thaw cycles on Mars billions of years ago, but they could also be volcanic, from cooling lava flows.

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