China Lander Reaches Moon, Will Return Samples This Month

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The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program is still firing on all cylinders despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. China’s National Space Administration has announced the  Chang’e-5 lander has successfully reached the lunar surface. While there, the robot will conduct various experiments and collect a bit of the moon for return to Earth. If successful, this will be the first new sample of lunar regolith in 44 years. 

There was some uncertainty as to the fate of Chang’e-5 early on Tuesday. Chinese media covered the launch on November 24th with great fanfare, but the expected landing time came and went with no announcement. Only after the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) confirmed the landing did Chinese state TV break in with news of the probe’s arrival on the moon. 

Chang’e-5 carries an assortment of instruments like a panoramic camera, a spectrometer to determine mineral composition, and ground-penetrating radar. The sample collection module has a robotic arm, a rotary percussive drill, a scoop, and separation tubes to keep individual samples isolated. Unlike the previous Chang’e-4 mission, the latest lander does not have a radioisotope heater unit. That means it won’t survive the coming lunar night — it will have to complete its work during a single lunar day, which luckily lasts about 14 Earth days. 

China hopes the mission will be able to collect as much as 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of lunar soil. The last sample from the moon returned to Earth came from the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976. It managed to send back 170.1 grams of regolith, by far the biggest haul from any of Russia’s lunar probes. Meanwhile, the US brought back hundreds of pounds of moon rocks during the Apollo program. 

After collecting its lunar samples, the Chang’e-5 lander will launch an ascent vehicle that will carry them back into orbit of the moon. China might begin this phase of the mission in just a few days, but don’t expect a live play-by-play a la NASA. The ascent vehicle will rendezvous with the Chang’e-5 service module, which is still in orbit. This spacecraft is equipped with a return module to fly the samples back to Earth. China expects to have the sample containers back on Earth around the middle of December. 

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