WENCHANG, China (AP) — Chinese technicians were making final preparations Monday for a mission to bring back material from the moon’s surface for the first time in nearly half a century — 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 most ambitious 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 are expected be sent into space Tuesday aboard a massive Long March-5 rocket from the Wenchang launch center along the coast of the southern island province of Hainan, according to a NASA description of the mission.
The secretive Chinese National Space Administration has only said that a launch is scheduled for late November, although the Lunar Exploration Project said in a statement Monday that success in orbiting, descending and returning would “lay a solid foundation for future missions.”
The mission’s key task is to drill 2 meters (almost 7 feet) beneath the moon’s surface and scoop up about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rocks and other debris to be brought back to Earth, according to NASA. 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.
After making the three-day trip from Earth, the Chang’e 5 lander’s time on the moon is scheduled to be short and sweet. 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 the “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 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 may 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, reenter and land a capsule. All that’s left is to show it can collect samples and take off again from the moon.
“As a result of this, I’m pretty optimistic that China can pull this off,” he said.
The mission is among China’s boldest since it first…
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