China signals space ambitions with launch of unmanned lunar probe

China’s launch of an unmanned spacecraft to the moon this week to bring back lunar rocks is the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from Earth’s natural satellite since the 1970s.

The Chang’e-5 probe, named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, will seek to collect material that can help scientists understand more about the moon’s origins and formation.

The mission will test China’s ability to remotely acquire samples from space, ahead of more complex missions.

If successful, the mission will make China only the third country to have retrieved lunar samples, following the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago.

China’s probe will attempt to collect 2 kg of samples in a previously unvisited area in a massive lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms).

James Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University, enthused about the new mission and compared it to the endeavours of the famous US Apollo moon missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s:

“The Apollo-Luna sample zone of the moon, while critical to our understanding, was undertaken in an area that comprises far less than half the lunar surface,” he said.

Subsequent data from orbital remote sensing missions have shown a wider diversity of rock types, mineralogies and ages than represented in the Apollo-Luna sample collections, he said.

“Lunar scientists have been advocating for robotic sample return missions to these many different critical areas in order to address a host of fundamental questions remaining from earlier exploration,” Head added.

The Chang’e-5 mission may help answer questions such as how long the moon remained volcanically active in its interior and when its magnetic field – key to protecting any form of life from the sun’s radiation – dissipated.

Once in the moon’s orbit, the probe will aim to deploy a pair of vehicles to the surface: a lander will drill into the ground, then transfer its soil and rock samples to an ascender that will lift off and dock with an orbiting module.

If this is successful, the samples will be transferred to a return capsule that will return them to Earth.

China made its first lunar landing in 2013. In January 2019, the Chang’e-4 probe touched down on the far side of the moon, the first by any nation’s space probe.

The move is part of much greater ambitions for China’s space programme.

Within the next decade, China plans to establish a robotic base station to conduct unmanned exploration in the south polar region.

It is to be developed through the Chang’e-67 and 8 missions through the 2020s and expanded through the 2030s ahead of manned landings.

China even plans to retrieve samples from Mars by 2030.

Indeed, in July China launched an unmanned probe to Mars in its first independent mission to another planet.

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