China launches 23-day Moon sample return mission

The mission is aimed at recovering the newest samples ever collected from the moon, with the spacecraft scheduled to return and land in Siziwang Banner, Inner Mongolia, between December 15 and 16.

China launches 23-day Moon sample return mission
China launches 23-day Moon sample return mission

China launches 23-day Moon sample return mission

The Chang’e-5 spacecraft was launched on November 23rd by China, kicking off a 23-day mission to bring back lunar samples to Earth, for the first time since the 1970s.

The spacecraft was launched by a Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, for an estimated 112-hour journey to the moon.

The mission is aimed at recovering the newest samples ever collected from the moon, with the spacecraft scheduled to return and land in Siziwang Banner, Inner Mongolia, between December 15 and 16. The lunar samples would then be transferred to specially developed facilities for analysis and storage.

If successful, this would make China only the third country to bring back lunar samples to Earth, after the U.S. Apollo crewed program of the 1960s and the Soviet robotic Luna missions of the 1970s.

Launch preparations have been going on since mid-September, but a detailed timeline of the mission has not been released by China. The spacecraft is expected to enter a roughly 200-kilometer altitude lunar orbit, just after sunrise, on November 27.

The target destination is Mons Rümker, a volcanic peak located in the Oceanus Procellarum region of the near side of the moon. The area is believed to contain geological units of basaltic rock as young as around 1.21 billion years old. Compared to it, samples brought back by Apollo astronauts are between 3.1 and 4.4 billion years old.

The spacecraft will begin its landing attempt, following which, sampling activities would continue for close to two Earth days. A 500-kilogram ascent vehicle will then carry around two kilograms of drilled and scooped samples into lunar orbit over the next two days. Once it reaches the destination and docks with the service module, the samples will be transferred to a re-entry capsule attached to it.

The re-entry capsule will separate from the ascent vehicle and stay in lunar orbit until it finds the right opportunities and conditions to return to Earth. It will separate from the service module at around 5,000 kilometers from Earth and perform a skip re-entry to deal with the high-velocity return. At this critical point, ESA tracking stations will support the spacecraft as it attempts re-entry.

The success of this mission would not only help scientists verify the age of the area through radiometric sample dating, it could also provide invaluable data about the geological phenomena on the moon, and even be applied as a reference for terrestrial bodies all across the solar system!