Richmond Times-Dispatch

Chinamoonm­ission plans to get rocks back to Earth

Key task is to drill, then scoop samples


WENCHANG, China— China launched an ambitious mission on Tuesday to bring back rocks and soil 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 solar system more generally.

Chang’e 5— named for the Chinese moon goddess — is the country’s boldest lunar mission. 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 spacecraft blasted off at just after 4:30 a.m. Tuesday atop a massive Long March-5Y rocket from the Wenchang space center along the coast of the southern island province of Hainan.

The mission’s key task is to drill almost 7 feet beneath the moon’s surface and scoop up about 4½ pounds of rocks and other material to be brought back to Earth, according to NASA. That would offer the first opportunit­y for 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 temperatur­e.

The technical complexity of Chang’e 5, with its four components, 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 high-tech programs, important for regional influence and potentiall­y global partnershi­ps,” she said.

In particular, the ability to collect samples from space is growing in value, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonia­n Center for Astrophysi­cs. Other countries planning to retrieve material from asteroids or even Mars might look to China’s experience, he said.

While the mission is “indeed challengin­g,” McDowell said China has already landed twice on the moon with its Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 missions, and showed with a 2014 Chang’e 5 test mission that it can navigate back to Earth, re-enter and land a capsule. All that’s left is to show it can collect samples and take off again.

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