China to launch lunar probe, in search of first lunar rock recovery since the 1970s
China plans to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the Moon this week to bring back lunar rocks in the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from Earth’s natural satellite since the 1970s.
The Chang’e-5 probe, named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, will seek to collect material that can help scientists understand more about the origins and formation of the moon. The mission will test China’s ability to acquire samples from space remotely, before more complex missions.
If successful, the mission will make China the third country to have recovered lunar samples, after the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago.
Since the Soviet Union made a forced landing of Luna 2 on the Moon in 1959, the first human-made object to reach another celestial body, a handful of other countries, including Japan and India, have launched lunar missions.
At Apollo program, which first put men in the Moon. The United States landed 12 astronauts in six flights from 1969 to 1972, bringing back 382 kg (842 pounds) of rocks and dirt.
The Soviet Union deployed three successful robotic sample return missions in the 1970s. The last, Luna 24, recovered 170.1 grams (6 ounces) of samples in 1976 from Mare Crisium, or “Sea of Crisis.”
The China probe, scheduled to launch in the next few days, will attempt to collect 2 kg (4 1/2 pounds) of samples from a previously unvisited area in a massive lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum, or “Ocean of Storms.” .
“The Apollo-Moon sampling zone of the moon, while critical to our understanding, was conducted in an area that comprises much less than half of the lunar surface,” said James Head, planetary scientist at Brown University. .
Subsequent data from orbital remote sensing missions have shown a wider diversity of rock types, mineralogies, and ages than is represented in the Apollo-Luna sample collections, he said.
“Lunar scientists have been advocating robotic sample return missions to these different critical areas in order to address a number of fundamental questions left over from previous exploration,” Head said.
The Chang’e-5 mission can help answer questions such as how long the moon was volcanically active in its interior and when its magnetic field dissipated, key to protecting any form of life from solar radiation.
Once in orbit of the moon, the probe will aim to deploy a pair of vehicles to the surface: a lander will drill into the ground, then transfer its soil and rock samples to an ascendant that will lift off and dock with a module in orbit.
If this is successful, the samples will be transferred to a return capsule that will return them to Earth.
China made its first lunar landing in 2013. In January 2019, the Chang’e-4 probe landed on the opposite side of the moon, the first by a space probe from any nation.
In the next decade, China plans to establish a robotic base station to conduct unmanned exploration in the South Pole region.
It will run through the Chang’e-6，7 and 8 missions through the 2020s and will extend through the 2030s before the manned landings.
China plans to recover samples of Mars by 2030.
In July, China launched an unmanned probe to Mars on its first independent mission to another planet.