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Fly China to the moon

Chang’e 5 is the first mission to collect moon material in more than four decades

A Long March 5 rocket carrying the Chang’e 5 lunar mission lifts off in Wenchang, China, on Nov. 23. Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein

Fly China to the moon

More than 40 years after the last lunar mission returned moon rocks to the Earth, China’s space agency is on the verge of giving scientists new material. The Chang’e 5 mission blasted off early Nov. 23 local time from a launch site in China’s southernmost Hainan province on a mission to orbit and land on the moon and collect measurements and material.

In six moon landings, NASA astronauts returned with 842 pounds of lunar rock and soil, concluding with the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. The last lunar voyage to bring home moon rocks or dust occurred in 1976 when the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 returned about 6 ounces of debris. China hopes to gather about 4 pounds of lunar material to return to Earth. If successful, it could not only provide scientists new rocks to study but also buoy the country’s nascent space program.

China’s most powerful rocket, the Long March 5, hauled the nearly 9-ton Chang’e 5 vehicle to space. By Nov. 28, the spacecraft had orbited the moon. A section is scheduled to detach and land near Mons Rümker, a volcanic formation in a previously unexplored portion of the lunar surface. During the two-week survey mission, the Chinese National Space Administration hopes to take as many as 15 core samples.

“The early exploration by the Apollo and Luna missions gave us some really important clues as to how the moon works. But they were limited in where they went,” Brown University geologist and Apollo program veteran James Head told the government-run China Global Television Network. “[This is] nowhere near where we landed before.”

Head said returning volcanic rock from Mons Rümker could provide scientists an opportunity to study material that formed later in the moon’s history than the samples of nonvolcanic rock obtained by the Apollo and Luna missions.

For the Chinese, the trick will be returning the lunar material to Earth. A robotic arm will transfer the collected samples into an ascender module, which will blast off from the moon’s surface and dock with the orbiter. From there, a recovery vehicle will return the material to Earth. If all goes well, it will reenter Earth’s atmosphere inside a return capsule and parachute to safety in China’s autonomous Inner Mongolia region.

China’s Chang’e 1 mission successfully orbited the moon in 2007, a first for the rising CNSA space program. The agency hopes to land near the lunar South Pole in 2023 and 2024. Meanwhile, NASA’s Artemis program seeks to return to the moon in three steps, culminating with a crewed flight in 2024.

John Dawson

John is a correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin, and he previously wrote for The Birmingham News. John resides in Dallas, Texas.


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