China is aiming to be the third country to reach the Moon and return lunar rock and soil to Earth for analysis. The United States and Russia returned Moon samples to earth about 40 years ago. This week. China’s Chang’e-5 robotic spacecraft took off aboard a Long March 5 rocket and began its voyage to the Moon.
The mission is run by the China National Space Administration, China’s equivalent of NASA. When Chang’e-5 reaches the moon, it will go into orbit. A robotic lander (there are no humans on this mission) will be deployed to the Moon’s surface. It will use near-infrared spectrometers and ground-penetrating radar to peer under the Moon’s surface. After finding a prime spot to dig, the robot will drill into the soil to gather about 2 kilograms worth of lunar dust and debris. An ascent vehicle will carry the robot back to the orbiter. The soil samples will be packaged into a capsule, then guided to the space above Mongolia where it will enter the atmosphere and tumble fast and hot to the Earth’s surface.
The lander will target an area on the nearside of the moon in a region known as Oceanus Procellarum. it will land in a volcanic area called Mons Rumker. The rocks in this area are thought to be newer than other places on the Moon’s surface. This should give scientists an idea about how the Moon’s surface changes with volcanic activity. They might even be able to gather up some older rocks that ejected from deep inside the Moon.
Chang’e-5 is expected to return to Earth in December 2020.
The mission follows the Chang’e-4 mission which made a “soft touch down” on the Moon’s far side – the first country to do so. The last mission to return Moon dirt to Earth was in 1976 by the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 robotic probe.