China becomes 3rd country to bring Moon samples to Earth

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Chang'e-5 Image
A Long March 5 rocket carrying China's Chang'e-5 lunar probe launched from the Wenchang Space Center on November 24.

China has become just the third nation in the world to gather rocks from the moon successfully.

According to China’s state media agency, the country’s unmanned Chang’e-5 spacecraft returned to Earth with the country’s first moon samples.

The samples were taken from a previously unvisited moon area, and are also the first samples to be collected since the 1970s by any country. The returning capsule landed in Siziwang Banner, which lies north of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. Beijing time on the 17th morning, according to China’s National Space Administration (CNSA).

The probe, named after the ancient Chinese moon goddess, first took off on November 24 from the Wenchang spacecraft launch site in Hainan.

Valuable samples

On December 1, it landed on the near side of the moon on a huge lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum, or “Ocean of Storms.” This large dark spot may be a scar from a giant cosmic impact that formed an ancient sea of magma, according to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

The samples from this area could help scientists learn more about the history and foundations of the moon and lay the groundwork for more complex sample retrieval missions in the future, potentially on other planets.

According to the Chinese state media agency, after the returning capsule has landed back on Earth, it will be airlifted to Beijing, where the capsule will be opened and the samples will be ready for analysis and research. According to Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director at the CNSA, China will also make some of the samples available to scientists in other countries.

Chinese scientists are already drawing up plans for future lunar exploration, including a project to construct a scientific research station on the moon, said Mr. Pei.

“We hope to cooperate with other countries to build the international lunar scientific research station, which could provide a shared platform for lunar scientific exploration and technological experiments,” Mr. Pei said.

Third in the world

China’s achievement follows the United States and the Soviet Union, which both collected lunar samples decades ago.

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 rocks and soil.

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