China hails successful start of ambitious Moon mission

Aim is to collect samples to help scientists understand more about Moon's origins

The Long March-5 Y5 rocket, carrying the Chang'e-5 lunar probe, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Center on Nov 24, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

HAINAN • China has hailed as a success its pre-dawn launch yesterday of a robotic spacecraft to bring back rocks from the Moon in the first attempt by any country to retrieve lunar surface samples since the 1970s, a mission underscoring Chinese ambitions in space.

The Long March-5, China's largest carrier rocket, blasted off at 4.30am Singapore time from Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern Chinese island of Hainan carrying the Chang'e-5 spacecraft.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) called the launch a success and said in a statement that the rocket flew for nearly 37 minutes before sending the spacecraft on its intended trajectory.

The mission by the Chang'e-5, named after the ancient Chinese Moon goddess, will seek to collect lunar material to help scientists understand more about the Moon's origins and formation. The mission will test China's ability to remotely acquire samples from space, ahead of more complex missions.

State broadcaster CCTV, which ran live coverage of the launch, showed images of CNSA staff applauding and cheering as they watched the spacecraft climbing through the atmosphere, lighting up the night sky.

If the mission is completed as planned, it would make China only the third country to have retrieved lunar samples, joining the United States and the Soviet Union.

Upon entering the Moon's orbit, the spacecraft is expected to deploy a pair of vehicles to the lunar surface: a lander and an ascender.

The landing is due to take place in about eight days, according to Mr Pei Zhaoyu, a spokesman for the mission. The probe is due to remain on the lunar surface for about two days, while the entire mission is scheduled to take an estimated 23 days, he said.

The plan is for the lander to drill into the lunar surface, with a robotic arm scooping out soil and rocks. This material would be transferred to the ascender vehicle, which is due to carry it from the surface and then dock with an orbiting module.

The samples then would be transferred to a return capsule for the return trip to Earth, with a landing in China's Inner Mongolia region.

"The biggest challenges... are the sampling work on the lunar surface, take-off from the lunar surface, rendezvous and docking in the lunar orbit, and high-speed re-entry to Earth," said Mr Pei, who is also director of the space administration's Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Centre.

China, which last year carried out the first landing on the far side of the Moon and in July of this year launched a robotic probe to Mars, has other space goals in its sights.

It aims to have a permanent manned space station in service around 2022.

"From next year, we will carry out the launch mission of our national space station," said the Long March-5 carrier rocket's deputy commander Qu Yiguang.

Dr Matt Siegler, a research scientist at the Arizona-based Planetary Science Institute who is not part of the Chang'e-5 mission, said the Mons Rumker volcanic area of the Moon where the spacecraft is due to land is between one billion and two billion years old.

"That is very young for the Moon - most of our samples are 31/2 billion years old or more," Dr Siegler said in an e-mail, noting that the area and other similar ones represented "late-stage volcanism" when the Moon had enough internal heat for such activity.

"We want to find out what is special about these regions and why they remained warm longer than the rest of the Moon," Dr Siegler added.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2020, with the headline China hails successful start of ambitious Moon mission. Subscribe