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China launches lunar probe for first lunar remote retrieval since 1970s

The fifth Long March-5 rocket with China’s new lunar probe Chang’e-5 on top is ready to be transferred to the launch site of the Wenchang Space Launch Center on November 17, 2020 in Wenchang, Hainan Province of China.

VCG | Visual China Group | Getty Images

China plans to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the moon this week to bring back the moonstones in any country̵

7;s first attempt to retrieve samples from Earth’s natural satellite since the 1970s.

The Chang’e-5 probe, named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, will seek to gather material that can help scientists understand more about the moon’s origin and formation. The mission will test China’s ability to externally acquire samples from space ahead of more complex missions.

If successful, the mission will only make China the third country to have taken lunar samples after the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago.

Since the Soviet Union landed Luna 2 on the moon in 1959, the first man-made object has reached another celestial body, a handful of other countries, including Japan and India, have launched lunar missions.

In the Apollo program, which first put men on the moon, the United States landed 12 astronauts over six flights from 1969 to 1972, bringing back 382 kg (842 pounds) of rock and earth.

The Soviet Union deployed three successful robot test return missions in the 1970s. The last, Luna 24, retrieved 170.1 grams (6 ounces) of samples in 1976 from Mare Crisium or “Sea of ​​Crises”.

China’s probe, scheduled to be launched in the coming days, will attempt to collect 2 kg of samples at a previously uninhabited area in a massive lava plain known as the Oceanus Procellarum or “Ocean of Storms”.

“The Apollo-Luna test zone on the moon, although critical to our understanding, was conducted in an area that covers far less than half the moon’s surface,” said James Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University.

Subsequent data from orbital remote sensing missions have shown a wider diversity of rock types, mineralogies and ages than represented in the Apollo-Luna sample collections, he said.

“Lunar scientists have been advocating that robotic samples return missions to these many different critical areas to address a number of fundamental questions left over from previous exploration,” said Head.

The Chang’e-5 mission can help answer questions such as how long the moon remained volcanically active inside, and when its magnetic field – the key to protecting any form of life from the sun’s radiation – disappears.

The mission

Once in the lunar orbit, the probe will aim to insert a few vehicles to the surface: a lander will drill into the ground and then transfer its soil and rock samples to an ascender that lifts off and docks with a circuit module.

If this is successful, the samples are transferred to a return capsule that returns them to the ground.

China made its first lunar landing in 2013. In January 2019, the Chang’e-4 probe touched down on the other side of the moon, the first of any nation’s space probe.

Within the next decade, China plans to establish a robot base station to conduct unmanned exploration in the South Polar region.

It is to be developed through Chang’e-6,7 and 8 missions through the 2020s and expanded through the 2030s prior to manned landings. China plans to retrieve samples from Mars by 2030.

In July, China launched an unmanned probe to Mars in its first independent mission to another planet.

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