Probe to retrieve samples: spacecraft from China flies to the moon


With the “Chang’e” lunar probe, China wants to land on the moon and bring rock samples back to earth. If the mission were successful, the People’s Republic would be only the third space nation, after the USA and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, to achieve something like this.

China has successfully launched an unmanned spacecraft on its way to the moon. The spaceship, named after the Chinese moon goddess “Chang’e 5”, is supposed to land on the earth’s satellite and bring rock samples back to earth for the first time in 44 years. Researchers are waiting with great curiosity for the lunar rocks, which will be significantly younger than all previous samples and thus provide new insights into the history of the moon. With a successful return, China would be only the third space nation to succeed in such a project after the USA and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.

With a “Long March 5” rocket, the spacecraft lifted off smoothly from the space station in Wenchang on the southern Chinese island of Hainan early Tuesday morning local time. One and a half hours after take-off, the spaceship unfolded its awnings to provide power. A little later, the control center commander Zhang Xueyu announced that “Chang’e 5” had been a complete success “.

Congratulations from NASA

The spaceship is expected to land on Sunday in a volcanic area named after the German astronomer Karl Rümker (1788-1862), which lies in the “ocean of storms” – in the upper, left-hand part of the moon’s side facing the earth. The science director of the American space agency NASA, Thomas Zurbuchen, congratulated China on the successful start. “We look forward to seeing how sample collection will advance the international scientific community,” wrote Zurbuchen on Twitter. “The moon is an exciting place!” He expressed the hope that scientists from other countries could also benefit from studying the “valuable cargo”.

The “Ocean of Storms” is only 1.2 million years old. Moon rocks collected by the USA and the Soviet Union, on the other hand, are significantly older, at 3.1 and 4.4 million years. Researchers hope the samples will provide new information about the volcanic activity of the moon. The US Apollo missions brought back around 380 kilograms of lunar rock. The Soviet Union collected 300 grams – most recently with the unmanned “Luna 24” landing in 1976, when 170 grams of moon dust was brought to earth.

The mission is “one of the most complex and difficult in Chinese space history,” as the state agency Xinhua wrote. For the first time, a Chinese ascent would take off from the moon, take rock samples and perform a docking maneuver with the orbiter 200 kilometers above the moon’s surface before the return capsule flies back to Earth. Such a maneuver is so far unique for China, said Peng Jing, vice chief designer of “Chang’e 5”, the news agency. “It’s going to be very difficult.”

Two days of work on the moon

At 8,200 kilograms, the largest spaceship in the “Chang’e” fleet to date consists of four modules: the orbiter with the return capsule and the lander with the ascent stage. After touching down on the lunar surface, the lander will use a long arm to collect around two kilograms of lunar rock and samples from boreholes up to two meters deep and store them in a chamber. The action should last two days.

“Landing on the moon is easier than on Mars,” said US space expert James Rice on Chinese state television. “But space flights are still risky.” From his point of view, the mission shows how well China is aware of the importance of space travel for research and development. The flight will “lay an important foundation for China’s future manned moon landings,” said Pei Zhaoyu, vice director of the moon program, according to Xinhua. The spaceship is scheduled to land in Inner Mongolia on December 16 or 17.

China is pursuing an ambitious space program with missions to the moon and Mars and the construction of its own space station. In January 2019, China was the first space nation to land with “Chang’e 4” on the relatively unexplored far side of the moon. A rover has been abandoned to continue exploring the surface. The new Chinese moon flight takes place 51 years after the first manned moon landing of the USA on July 21, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were the first people to step on the surface of the satellite. The US has put astronauts on the moon six times. With “Apollo 17” in December 1972 the USA stopped their manned moon landings.

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