China’s robotic spacecraft launch to Moon hailed “successful”

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Chang'e-5 Image
Chang'e-5 took off on a 23 day mission to collect materials from the Moon surface

China hailed its pre-dawn launch of a robotic spacecraft to bring back rocks from the Moon a success.

It marks the first attempt by any country since the 1970s to collect lunar surface samples, a mission that reinforces Chinese ambitions in space.

In a launch from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on the southern Chinese island of Hainan carrying the Chang’e-5 spacecraft, the Long March-5 which is China’s largest carrier rocket, blasted off at 20:30 GMT on 23rd November.

The launch was called a success by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) who reported in a statement that the rocket flew for almost 37 minutes before sending the spacecraft on its planned trajectory.

Named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, the Chang’e-5 mission would aim to gather lunar information to help scientists learn more about the origins and formation of the moon. The mission will test the ability of China to collect samples from space remotely, ahead of more complex missions.

If the mission is completed as planned, China will become the third country to retrieve lunar samples, joining the US and the Soviet Union.

The mission

The spacecraft is designed to deploy a pair of vehicles to the lunar surface upon entering the moon’s orbit which are a lander and an ascender. According to a spokesperson for the mission, the landing is due to take place in about eight days. For around two days, the probe is due to be on the lunar surface, while the entire mission is planned to take about 23 days.

The aim is for the lander, which has a robotic arm for scooping out soil and rocks, to dig into the lunar ground. This material will be moved to the ascender vehicle, which is to be brought by an orbiting module from the surface and then deployed with it.

The samples will then be moved for the return trip to Earth to a return capsule which will land in the Inner Mongolia region of China.

“The biggest challenges are the sampling work on the lunar surface, take-off from the lunar surface, rendezvous and docking in the lunar orbit, as well as high-speed re-entry to Earth,” said Pei Zhaoyu, director of the space administration’s Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center.

“We can conduct sampling through circumlunar and moon – landing exploration, but it is more intuitive to obtain samples to conduct scientific research – the method is more direct,” Mr. Pei added. “Plus, there will be more instruments and more methods to study them on Earth.”

China, which achieved the first landing on the far side of the moon last year and launched a robotic probe to Mars in July of this year, has other space goals in its sights. By 2022, it plans to have a permanent manned space station in operation.

“From next year, we will carry out the launch mission of our national space station,” said Qu Yiguang, deputy commander of the Long March-5 carrier rocket.

Asked when China was planning to put astronauts on the moon, Mr. Pei said any decision would be based on scientific needs, as well as technical and economic conditions adding, “I think future lunar exploration activities should be carried out by a combination of man and machine.”

Earlier efforts

The United States, which currently plans to send astronauts to the moon by 2024, landed 12 astronauts there on six flights between 1969 and 1972 in its Apollo program, bringing back 382 kg (842 pounds) of rocks and soil.

Three successful robotic lunar sample-return missions were deployed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The last, the Luna 24, gathered approximately 170 grams (6 ounces) of samples from a region called Mare Crisium in 1976.