After the successful return of the lunar rocks with its Chang’e 5 robotic probe, China is preparing for future missions that could create the conditions for a possible lunar base for human explorers, a senior space program official said Thursday.
China’s next three lunar missions are on track, along with programs to return samples from Mars and explore asteroids and the planet Jupiter, said Wu Yanhua, deputy commander in chief of the China Lunar Exploration Program.
“Exploring the truth of the universe is only just beginning,” Wu said at a press conference held hours after the Chang’e 5 capsule parachute jump to a landing in Inner Mongolia, which contained the first samples of the moon, taken more than 40 years brought to earth years.
The Chang’e program, named after the Chinese moon goddess, carried out three landings there, including on the less explored other side. Chang’e 6, slated to launch in 2023, is set to collect more samples from the moon’s south pole, while its two successors are set to conduct detailed research and test technology necessary to build a scientific base on the moon.
No dates have been given for Chang’e 7 and 8, or for a manned mission to the moon that China says is in the works or for building a lunar base.
“China stands ready to continue to contribute to the world and improve people’s wellbeing with Chinese space solutions,” said Wu.
The Chang’e 5 probe capsule and its sample load were flown to the space program campus in Beijing after landing just before 2 a.m. Thursday.
The mission achieved initial success for China’s lunar exploration program by collecting samples, launching a vehicle from the lunar surface and docking it on the capsule to transfer the samples to Earth for its journey, the Chinese space agency said in a post-landing statement .
“As the most complex and technically groundbreaking space mission in our country, Chang’e 5 has made several technical breakthroughs … and is a milestone,” it said.
China was only the third country to put an astronaut into orbit alone in 2003 after the Soviet Union and United States and its space program embarked on a steady, cautious path to largely avoid the deaths and launch errors that tarnished the US. Soviet space race of the 1960s.
Wu said the most recent flight included working with the European Space Agency, as well as Argentina, Namibia, Pakistan and other nations that Chinese are working with to monitor and communicate with their spacecraft. In the future, China will “encourage more scientists around the world to participate in order to get more scientific results,” said Wu.
The United States remains an exception. Given concerns about the secrecy of China’s space program and close military ties, American law prohibits collaboration between NASA and the CNSA unless Congress approves it. This has prevented China from participating in the International Space Station and helped push Beijing to launch a now-defunct experimental space station and formulate plans to complete a permanent outpost over the next two years.
Two of the four modules of Chang’e 5 sat on the moon on December 1 and collected about two kilograms of samples by scooping them from the surface and drilling two meters into the lunar crust. The samples were placed in a sealed container that was returned to the return module by an ascending vehicle.
The newly collected rocks are believed to be billions of years younger than those previously received by the United States and the former Soviet Union, and offer new insights into the history of the moon and other bodies in the solar system. They come from a part of the moon known as Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms, near a place called Mons Rumker, which was believed to be volcanic in ancient times.
As with the 382 kilograms (842 pounds) lunar samples brought back by US astronauts from 1969 to 1972, they will be analyzed for age and composition and will likely be shared with other countries.
The age of the samples will help fill a knowledge gap about the history of the moon about 1 to 3 billion years ago, Brad Jolliff, director of the McDonnell Center for Space Science at Washington University in the US city of St. Louis, wrote in an email. They could also provide clues as to the availability of economically useful resources on the moon like concentrated hydrogen and oxygen, Jolliff said.
“These samples will be a treasure trove!” Jolliff wrote. “My hats go to our Chinese colleagues for completing a very difficult mission. The science that emerges from the analysis of the returned samples will be a legacy that will last for many, many years, and will hopefully involve the international community of scientists. “
Whether US researchers have access to the samples depends on American policy, Wu said.
“Whether it is US government departments, commercial companies, scientists or engineers, we sincerely seek friendly cooperation based on equality, mutual benefit and peaceful application,” said Wu.