Lunar mission is latest milestone in China's space ambitions

A Long March-5 rocket sits on the launch pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province, early Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020.

The launch had originally been planned for 2017, but was postponed due to an engine failure in the Long March 5 rocket, according to Nature.

China is planning to launch an uncrewed spacecraft to the moon on Tuesday, which will shovel up lunar rocks soil and bring them back to Earth.

If successful, the mission will make China only the third country to have retrieved lunar samples, following the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago. The spacecraft includes an ascender, lander, orbiter and returner, with the plan being for the lander and ascender to descend to the Moon's surface next month, where it will land near Mons Rümker.

After it enters the lunar orbit, the lander-ascender combination will separate from the orbiter-returner combination.

China's space agency is making final preparations to launch a spacecraft to the moon to collect material from the lunar surface.

Within 48 hours, a robotic arm will be extended to scoop up rocks and regolith on the lunar surface, and a drill will bore into the ground. The samples will be sealed into a container in the spacecraft. The materials will then be moved to the return capsule to be hauled back to Earth.

When the geometric relationship between Earth and the moon is suitable, the orbiter will carry the returner back to the planet. The returner will re-enter the atmosphere and land at the Siziwang Banner in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The whole flight will last more than 20 days.

If successful, it will be the first mission by any nation to retrieve samples from the lunar surface since the 1970s, and the third nation, after the United States and Russian Federation, to retrieve such samples.

In the meantime, NASA is seeking to send a series of scientific missions to the lunar surface, including a rover that would hunt for water on the moon's south pole by 2023.

The aim of the programme is for China to acquire the basic technologies of unmanned lunar exploration with limited investment, Pei said.

"Although China is now taking the lead in lunar exploration through decades of independent innovation in space technologies, it has always been committed to sharing the achievements", Xinhua said in a commentary.

What's clear is that China's cautious, incremental approach has racked up success after success since it first put a person in space in 2003, joining the former Soviet Union and the United States.

"Unmanned rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit will be a historic first". The samples will mostly be stored at the Chinese Academy of Sciences National Astronomical Observatory of China in Beijing.

"This was an incredible feat - and today we've advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.

The samples are important because they could help scientists understand volcanic activity on the moon, and when volcanoes were last active.

The landing site of Chang'e-5 will be to the west of that of Chang'e-3, which went to the moon in 2013. This region has never been sampled.

In particular, the ability to collect samples from space is growing in value, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

In order to keep the samples intact, researchers must find a flawless return route, and the returner's heat-resistant design also presents a tough challenge.

Latest News