China launched a spacecraft to the Moon’s surface, aiming to be the first nation to bring back lunar rock and soil samples in more than four decades.
The mission, called Chang’e 5, is the latest step in an ambitious space program that China hopes will culminate with an international lunar research station and ultimately a human colony on the Moon by the 2030s.
The launch, from the Wenchang space site at Hainan Island in China’s south, was broadcast live by Chinese state media. China has often been secretive about its deep space missions, waiting until they made it to orbit before officially announcing success. The broadcast without any delay may be a sign of growing confidence in the proven track record of its space program.
Cameras mounted on the rocket showed its boosters falling away and the ejection of the protective faring over the robotic probe as it headed to space. Audio and video from the mission’s control room captured employees of China’s space program applauding as the first and second stage of the rocket separated, and then when the spacecraft reached orbit about 15 minutes after liftoff. An additional ignition of the spacecraft’s engine will set it on course to the Moon.
If Chang’e 5’s journey to the Moon and back is successful, China will be only the third nation to bring pieces of the moon back to Earth. NASA astronauts accomplished that feat during the Apollo Moon landings, as did the Soviet Union’s Luna robotic landers, ending with Luna 24 in 1976. Those samples made major contributions to the understanding of the solar system’s evolution, and planetary scientists have waited eagerly for the day more samples would be brought back to Earth.
“This is a really audacious mission,” said David S. Draper, the deputy chief scientist at NASA. “They’re going to move the ball down the field in a big way with respect to understanding a lot of things that are important about lunar history.”
There has been a revival of interest in returning to the moon in the past couple of decades after the discovery of frozen water in shadowed craters in the polar regions. NASA has set a goal to send astronauts on new Moon landings in the coming years with its Artemis program. Commercial companies — some under contract to NASA — are aiming to send robotic landers to the Moon in the next year or two. India and an Israeli nonprofit tried to land spacecraft on the moon in 2019, but both spacecraft crashed.
The entire Chang’e 5 mission, from liftoff to the recovery of the rock samples, will be over in less than a month.
After the spacecraft enters orbit around the Moon, Chang’e 5 will split into two: A lander will head to the surface while the other piece, an orbiter, waits for its return.
Once it gets to the surface, in about a week, the lander needs to accomplish all of its drilling and scooping tasks within a single lunar day, which lasts 14 Earth days. The lander is not designed to survive the frigid dark lunar night.
The Chang’e 5 lander includes a small rocket, and before the sun sets it will blast off with the rock and soil samples. This rocket will rendezvous and dock with the piece of the spacecraft that remained in orbit. The samples will be transferred to the orbiter for the journey back to Earth.
The sample is scheduled to land in the Inner Mongolia region of China in the middle of December.