Less than a month after its launch into space, China’s Chang’e-5 lunar probe has safely returned to Earth. And it didn’t come empty-handed. The Chinese Chang’e-5 space capsule landed this Wednesday and brought about 4 kg of lunar rock with it.
According to state media reports, after touchdown, a “ground search and recovery team” arrived at the Chang’e-5 landing site to conduct primary inspection work around the # Change5 re-entry capsule.
The successful landing is the first time in over 40 years that stones have been brought back from the moon to the green planet. It adds another feather to the cap of China’s growing list of space conquests, including last year’s successful launch of the Chang’e 4 probe, which became the first spacecraft to land on the “dark side of the moon.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping also praised the mission’s success. But what is the Chang’e-5 moon mission and why is China so interested in studying moon rocks?
What is Chang’e-5?
The Chang’e-5 lunar probe is a robotic space mission as part of the Chinese lunar exploration program that was launched from China on November 23 and reached the moon on December 1. The mission consisted of four individual unmanned spacecraft – a landing module, an ascent module, an orbital module, and a re-entry module. The solar powered probe was intended for a short stay as it would not be able to withstand long periods of time on cold moonlit nights. The probe began its journey home last Sunday and landed on Wednesday.
China’s space program has a number of ambitious missions underway, including a probe on its way to Mars. The Chang’e lunar program, named after the ancient Chinese moon goddess, has been operating the Chang’e-4 probe on the less explored other side of the moon for two years.
When did Chang’e-5 reach Earth?
The Chang’e-5 lunar probe, which has orbited the moon for about a week, fired four engines for about 22 minutes to move out of the moon’s orbit earlier this week. The plane’s lander reportedly landed on the moon on December 1, near a formation called Mons Rumker. The lander collected about two kilograms worth of lunar rocks from the area believed to have been the site of ancient volcanic activity.
China’s national space agency said on a social media post that the return capsule landed in northern China in the Inner Mongolia region on Wednesday after separating from the rest of the spacecraft and floating down on parachutes.
How did China get stones from the moon?
The stones and other debris were obtained both by drilling into the lunar crust and by scooping directly from the surface. They may be billions of years younger than those brought back by previous US and Soviet missions, and may offer insight into the history of the moon and that of other bodies in the solar system. Before the launch, China reportedly had purposefully collected up to 4 kg of lunar rock for longer experiments and studies. It is not yet clear how much lunar surface material Chang’e-5 successfully collected.
Why does China collect moonstones?
The goal of collecting lunar surface material is reportedly to study a portion of the moon called “Oceanus Procellarum” which is believed to be much smoother than the rest of the lunar surface. Scientists believe the difference in terrain is related to volcanic activity on the lunar surface that occurred relatively recently – on a space-time scale. As a result, studying lunar samples from this region will help scientists better understand the lunar surface and learn more details about its interaction with the earth.
The mission is therefore intended to provide a deeper understanding of the formation, geological history and origin of the Earth’s natural satellite. But scientific investigation may not be China’s only goal. The successful completion of the ambitious Chang’e-5 mission will also mark China’s increasing ability in space.
Is this China’s first tryst with the moon?
In January last year, China made history when its lunar probe, consisting of the lunar lander Chang’e 4 and its rover Yutu 2, landed on the Von Karman crater in the south pole Aitken Basin of the moon. The probe was launched in December 2018 and since then the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the National Space Agency of China (CNSA) has been providing regular information about the moon and its surface.
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Why is China investing in space?
China has invested billions of dollars in space exploration under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. The funds have helped develop its intense and aggressively expanding space program. China’s space aggression is perhaps a good place for its even more aggressive foreign policy on Earth aimed at bringing about the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” During their trip to the moon, the Chang’e-5 mission also managed to plan the Chinese flag on lunar soil, making China the second country in the world to ever do so. The claim to the moon dates back to the space race of the 1960s and 1970s, an era that led to unprecedented success for both Russia and the United States in space missions as they sought to compete on both nuclear and ideological levels.
China’s 13th Five-Year Plan presents “space” as a research priority for the nation, including in-orbit and space exploration. In line with its growing presence in space, Beijing is also on the verge of building a permanent space station by 2022 and a manned mission to the moon by the next decade.
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What will China do with moonstones?
China has set up laboratories to analyze the samples for age and composition, and some of them are expected to be shared with other countries, as has happened with the hundreds of kilograms brought back from the US and the former Soviet Union.
Future plans are to bring a person back to the moon and perhaps a permanent lunar base. China is also building a space station that is scheduled to start operating as early as 2022.
The Chinese lunar mission is also testing technologies that will be needed for future missions to the moon and Mars. According to ABC Science, the technology used in this mission for functions such as navigation, landing, docking in space, and re-entry into Earth will continue to aid crewed missions in the future.
Is China the only country that has brought back moonstones?
With the successful landing of the mission, China is now the third country to ever collect lunar samples, and also the first in 44 years after Russia accomplished the feat in its 1976 unmanned Luna 24 mission. Both Chang’e and the Soviet mission were unmanned.
The only country that has ever sent a manned mission to the moon was the United States. Between 1969 and 1972, Apollo managed to send a manned mission to the moon to collect lunar rock samples. The legendary Apollo missions are best remembered for bringing the first man to the moon, an incident at the heart of the Cold War.
(With entries from AP)