AsianScientist (Dec. 10, 2020) – On December 3, 2020, China’s Change-5 probe lifted off from the surface of the Moon carrying the first lunar samples in over four decades. Launched by the China National Space Administration a week prior on November 23, the unmanned probe is expected to return to Earth on December 16.
Typically, astronomers are content with using telescopes to study celestial objects from afar. There is one exception—the Moon. As it is only 380,000 kilometers away from Earth, our nearest neighbor presents an enticing opportunity for sample collection. Such samples could hold clues to the Moon’s formation and the origin of the Solar System.
Despite this, it’s been over four decades since lunar samples were last collected during the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. Between then and now, researchers have been piecing together clues about the story of the Solar System using samples nearly half a century old.
This is where China’s Chang’e-5 mission comes in. Fittingly named after the Chinese Moon goddess Chang’e, the mission’s goal is to land on the Moon, collect fresh samples, and return them to Earth. If successful, China is set to be the third country to take home lunar samples, after the US and Soviet Union.
The journey of Chang’e-5 to the Moon and back began with its launch from China’s Hainan Province on November 23. It was launched on a Long March 5 rocket, currently the world’s third most powerful rocket. Upon entering Moon’s orbit, the probe separated into its two parts: an orbiter-returner, designed to return to Earth, and a lander-ascender, meant to collect the lunar samples.
With the orbiter-returner remaining in orbit, the lander-ascender touched down on December 1 near a volcanic formation called Mons Rümker in the lunar region Oceanus Procellarum. After collecting two kilograms of samples, the ascender lifted off and docked with the orbiter-returner on December 6. With this accomplished, the probe is now set to return to Earth and is expected to land in Inner Mongolia in mid-December.
The samples collected by Chang’e-5 are composed of a material called ‘regolith,’ the Moon’s equivalent of dirt. Regolith samples help scientists calibrate the age of surfaces in the Solar System, with the material collected by Chang’e-5 is estimated to be around 1.2 billion years old. For reference, the earlier samples from NASA’s Apollo missions were over three billion years old. By collecting younger samples, Chang’e-5 improves the spread of data points used for calibration.
Chang’e-5 forms part of the third phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. In the previous phase, the Chang’e-4 mission achieved humanity’s first soft landing on the far side of the Moon. The next phase will focus on setting up a robotic research station on the Moon, with all these efforts setting the stage for a crewed lunar landing in the 2030s.
With these ambitious plans, one can say that Chang’e-5 is a small step in what China hopes to be giant leap to the Moon.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Unsplash.
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