China’s Chang’e-5 Probe Drops Off Moon Samples on the Climax of a Historic Mission

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A Chinese probe has delivered the first samples to be collected from the Moon in more than 40 years, and its mission isn’t done yet.

The Chang’e-5 sample return capsule floated down to the snowy plains of Inner Mongolia, capping an odyssey that began less than a month ago with the launch of a nine-ton spacecraft from south China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center.

After a week’s transit time, the spacecraft’s orbiter sent a lander down to the lunar surface on December 1st. That lander stuffed as much as two kilograms of rock and dirt into an ascent vehicle over the course of two days, and then sent the ascent vehicle up to its scheduled rendezvous with the orbiter. Once the goods were transferred to the return capsule, the ascent vehicle headed back to its demise on the Moon’s surface.

Meanwhile, the orbiter fired its thrusters to head back to Earth and make the crucial delivery. It released the sample return capsule, then executed an evasive maneuver to head back toward deep space — potentially for another mission that’s yet to be revealed.

The sample return capsule slowed its descent with an initial bounce off the upper layers of the atmosphere over the Arabian Sea, followed by the parachute-aided plunge to Siziwang Banner in Inner Mongolia.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted the China National Space Administration as saying that the capsule landed at 1:59 a.m. Beijing time December 17th (1759 UTC December 16th).

Chang’e-5’s recovery team first spotted the probe on aerial infrared imagery, and quickly arrived at the site. Video from the scene showed the capsule sitting upright and apparently in good shape, with a Chinese flag set up nearby for the photo op.

The capsule won’t be opened until it’s brought back to a lab in Beijing. Assuming that the samples are intact, Chinese scientists and their international collaborators could well be studying the material for decades.

Delivery of the samples marks a stunning technical achievement for China’s space program, which had previously sent orbiters and two sets of robotic landers and rovers to the Moon. Bringing a probe back from the Moon involves a higher degree of difficulty. This is the first delivery from the Moon since 1976, when the Soviet Union’s robotic Luna 24 probe brought back lunar samples.

NASA’s Apollo astronauts collected hundreds of kilograms of lunar material between 1969 and 1972, but the U.S. space agency’s next opportunity isn’t expected to come until it sends an Artemis crew to the lunar surface, no earlier than 2024.

Beyond the technical achievement, Chang’e-5’s lunar samples could shed new light on the latter phases of lunar geology and the evolution of the Earth-Moon system.

The lander touched down in a part of Oceanus Procellarum that’s thought to have been formed volcanically 1.2 billion years ago. That would make Chang’e-5’s specimens the youngest rocks ever collected on the Moon.

Xinhua said Chinese President Xi Jinping extended congratulations to the entire Chang’e-5 mission team. On the other side of the world, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told the Chinese team in a tweet that “the international science community celebrates your successful Chang’e-5 mission.”

“These samples will help reveal secrets of our Earth-Moon system and gain new insights about the history of our solar system,” Zurbuchen said.

Lead image: Chang’e-5’s soot-streaked sample return capsule sits amid the snows of Inner Mongolia with a Chinese flag set up nearby. Credit: CNSA via CCTV

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