China Chang’e 5 mission, tasked with bringing lunar soil samples back to Earth, successfully landed on the Moon on Tuesday, marking the third time China has placed a robotic aircraft on the lunar surface. The lander will immediately begin digging up samples of lunar soil, which will be returned to our planet later this month.
The robot launched from China’s Wenchang Spaceship Launch Site on November 23, flying into space aboard a Long March 5 rocket. It is a complex mission consisting of four main spacecraft that will all work together to carry between 2 and 4 kilograms of lunar dirt returned to Earth. The quartet traveled to the Moon by attaching itself to lunar orbit on November 28.
The separation between lander/ascent vehicle and orbiter/return vehicle of #Change5 on Lunar orbit. Video is taken from the orbiter/return vehicle.
Two of the four spacecraft, including the lander and the climbing vehicle, have been stacked on top of each other. On November 28, the pair separated from a third spacecraft, the Chang’e 5 service module, which remains in orbit around the Moon. The landing and climb module landed on the lunar surface today, according to CGTN.
Over the next few days, the lander will use a robotic arm to drill in lunar dirt and pick up rocks, storing them in sample containers. After the sample had collected, the robotic arm will move the box to the climb module above the lander. Then it was time for the second takeoff of the Chang’e 5, with the climb module taking off from the sampled lander in tow. The ascent module will meet the service module in orbit, and together the spacecraft will return to Earth.
The samples will transfer to a fourth spacecraft, a re-entry capsule tasked with bringing the material to the ground. It is unclear exactly when the landings will take place, but it could happen around December 16 or 17. China is choices a place in Inner Mongolia for a landing site.
If all goes according to plan, China will be one of only three countries to bring back samples from the Moon. The US Astronauts took lunar soil samples during the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 70s, and the former Soviet Union brought back lunar material through a series of robotic missions in the 1970s. In fact, the last successful lunar sample return mission occurred in 1976 with the USSR’s Luna 24 mission. With Chang’e 5, China could bring back the first material from the Moon in nearly half a century.
Chang’e 5 isn’t the only mission that can bring stones from another world to Earth this month. Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission, already in space since 2014 scheduled to return material samples from an asteroid called Ryugu this weekend. It means Earth could obtain two valuable samples of unspoiled space rock by December 2020.