Richmond Times-Dispatch

Chinamoonm­ission plans to get rocks back to Earth

Key task is to drill, then scoop samples

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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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