San Francisco Chronicle
Beijing launches mission to retrieve moon samples
WENCHANG, China — China launched an ambitious mission on Tuesday to bring back material from the moon’s surface for the first time in more than 40 years — an undertaking that could boost human understanding of the moon and of the greater solar system.
Chang’e 5 — named for the Chinese moon goddess — is the country’s boldest lunar mission yet. If successful, it would be a major advance for China’s space program, and some experts say it could pave the way for bringing samples back from Mars or even a crewed lunar mission.
The four modules of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft blasted off at just after 4:30 a.m. Tuesday atop a massive Long March5y rocket from the Wenchang launch center along the coast of the southern island province of Hainan.
The typically secretive administration had previously only confirmed the launch would be in late November. Spacecraft typically take three days to reach the moon.
The mission’s key task is to drill almost 7 feet beneath the moon’s surface and scoop up several pounds of rocks and other debris to be brought back to Earth. That would offer the first opportunity to scientists to study newly obtained lunar material since the American and Russian missions of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Chang’e 5 lander’s time on the moon is scheduled to be short. It can only stay one lunar daytime, or about 14 Earth days, because it lacks the radioisotope heating units to withstand the moon’s freezing nights.
The lander will dig for materials with its drill and robotic arm and transfer them to what’s called an ascender, which will lift off from the moon and dock with a service capsule. The materials will then be moved to the return capsule for the trip home to Earth.
The technical complexity of Chang’e 5, with its four modules, makes it “remarkable in many ways,” said Joan Johnson-freese, a space expert at the U.S. Naval War College.
“China is showing itself capable of developing and successfully carrying out sustained hightech programs, important for regional influence and potentially global partnerships,” she said.
The mission is among China’s most ambitious since it first put a man in space in 2003, becoming only the third nation to do so after Russia and the U.S.