China's Chang & # 39; e-5 probe is en route to the moon for a mission that could bring back the first samples of lunar rocks and debris in more than 40 years.
The 8.2-ton spacecraft was launched into space on a March 5 rocket from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China at 4:30 a.m. local time on November 24 (8:30 p.m. Universal time on November 23).
Like China's earlier lunar probes, Chang & # 39; e-5 is named after a moon goddess in Chinese mythology. This probe consists of an orbiter, a lander, an ascent vehicle and a re-entry capsule.
The vehicle follows an earth-moon transfer orbit that is expected to put it into lunar orbit five days after takeoff. On November 29 or so, the paired lander and ascent vehicle are expected to separate from the orbiter and land on a lava dome called Mons Rümker.
The hill is believed to contain rocks that geologically formed relatively recently – 1.2 billion years ago. Samples from such a region could provide the youngest rocks ever brought back from the moon and shed new bright spots on the most recent phases of lunar geology.
Chang & # 39; e-5's lander was designed to survey its surroundings using cameras and scientific instruments, including a ground penetrating radar and spectrometer. The main scientific payloads are a mechanical shovel and a drill that can go two meters below the surface.
Since the lander is solar powered, all lunar surface operations must be completed within two weeks before the two-week lunar night begins at Mons Rümker.
Up to two kilograms of samples can be stowed on the ascent vehicle, which is to be blasted from the surface of the moon in early December. Meet with the orbiter and transfer the material into the re-entry pod.
If all goes according to plan, the orbiter will carry the capsule back from the moon and drop it when it flies past Earth in mid-December. The capsule was designed to survive atmospheric re-entry and perform a parachute-assisted touchdown in the deserts of Inner Mongolia.
The last time a probe brought fresh samples back from the moon was in 1976, thanks to the Soviet Luna 24 mission. NASA's Apollo missions brought back more than 800 pounds of lunar rock and soil for study on Earth between 1969 and 1972.
Peng Jing, the deputy chief designer of the Chinese lunar probe, said Chang & # 39; e-5 could be seen as a "milestone mission".
"Its success will help us acquire the basic skills for future space exploration such as sampling and launching from Mars, asteroids and other celestial bodies," China's state-run news agency Xinhua Peng quoted as saying.
NASA's first opportunity to bring back lunar samples could come in 2024, when the Artemis program's schedule for sending astronauts to the moon and back is set. In September, NASA put forward a plan that would allow commercial space companies to store samples on the moon and then transfer ownership of that material to the space agency.
NASA noted the launch of Chang & # 39; e-5 in a tweet and urged China to share mission data with the global scientific community:
With Chang & # 39; e 5, China has made efforts to collect lunar samples together with the US and the former Soviet Union. We hope that China will share its data with the global scientific community to improve our understanding of the moon, as our Apollo missions and Artemis program did. pic.twitter.com/mPjG4FE0qQ
– NASA (@NASA) November 23, 2020
NASA's reference to the exchange of scientific data sparked a debate on Twitter about international space policy – including the fact that US law precludes bilateral cooperation with China on space issues for security reasons. At least one state-affiliated Chinese news agency, the English-language Global Times, criticized NASA's request in a tweet:
NASA's quick social media message following China's successful launch of the Chang & # 39; e-5 lunar probe, arrogantly urging Chinese space agencies to share data with it, reflects their growing concern over the growth of China's space strength: Observer https://t.co/fgShix5gVa
– Global Times (@globaltimesnews) November 24, 2020
Mission statement: China's Long March 5 rocket sends the Chang & # 39; e-5 probe into space. Photo credit: CNSA / CLEP
This is an updated version of a report originally published in Cosmic Log.