China launched an ambitious mission on Tuesday to bring rocks and debris back from the surface of the moon for the first time in more than 40 years – an undertaking that could advance human understanding of the moon and the solar system more generally.
Chang’e 5 – named for the Chinese moon goddess – is the country’s most daring moon mission yet. If successful, it would be a major breakthrough for China’s space program, and some experts say it could pave the way for bringing samples back from Mars or even a lunar moon mission.
Four Chang’e 5 spacecraft modules exploded just after 4:30 am on Tuesday (2030 GMT Monday, 3:30 pm EST Monday) atop a giant Long-March 5Y rocket from the Wenchang launch center along the coast of the southern island province of Hainan.
Minutes after liftoff, the spacecraft separated from the first and second stages of the rocket and slid into the orbit of the Earth’s Moon. About an hour later, Chang’e 5 opened its solar panels to provide its independent power source.
Spacecraft usually take three days to reach the moon.
The launch was carried live by national broadcaster CCTV who later switched to computer animation to show its progress into outer space.
The mission’s key task is to drill 2 meters below the moon’s surface and capture about 2 kilograms of rocks and other debris to bring it back to Earth, according to NASA. That would offer scientists the first opportunity to study newly acquired moon material since the American and Russian missions in the 1960s and 1970s.
Chang’e 5’s lateness time on the moon is expected to be short and sweet. It can only stay one moon day a day, or about 14 days on Earth, because it does not have the radioisotope heating units to withstand freezing moon nights.
The lander will dig out materials with his robotic drill and arm and transfer them to what he called an ascent, which will rise from the moon and dock with the service capsule. The materials are then moved to the return capsule to be taken back 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 US Naval War College.
“China is demonstrating its ability to successfully develop and deliver ongoing high-tech programs, important for regional influence and potentially global partnerships,” he said.
In particular, the ability to collect space samples is growing in value, says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Other countries looking to retrieve material from asteroids or even Mars may be looking to China’s experience, he said.
While the mission is “really challenging,” McDowell said China has already landed twice on the moon with its Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 missions, and has demonstrated with the Chang’e 5 test mission in 2014 that it can steer back to Earth, rejoining and landing a capsule. All that remains is to show that he can collect samples and take again from the moon.
“As a result, I’m quite optimistic that China can pull this off,” he said.
The mission is among the boldest in China since it first put man into space in 2003, becoming only the third nation to do so after the United States and Russia.
Chang’e 5 and future moon missions aim to “provide better technical support for future scientific and exploration activities,” Pei Zhaoyu, mission spokesman and deputy director of the Chinese National Space Administration’s Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center, told reporters in a briefing on Monday.
“Scientific needs and technical and economic conditions” would determine whether China decides to send a crew mission to the moon, said Pei, whose comments were banned under the launch. “I believe that future moon exploration activities are most likely to be conducted in human-machine combination.”
While many of China’s crew spaceflight achievements, including building an experimental space station and maintaining a spacecraft, are replicating some other countries of recent years, the CNSA is now moving into new territory.
Chang’e 4 – which made the first soft landing on the moon’s relatively unexplored far side nearly two years ago – is currently collecting full measurements of radiation exposure from the moon’s surface, information that is vital to any country intending to send astronauts to the moon.
China in July became one of three countries to have launched a mission to Mars, in the case of China’s orbiter and rover that will look for water signs on the red planet. The CNSA says the Tianwen 1 spacecraft is on track to reach Mars around February.
China has increasingly engaged with foreign countries on missions, and the European Space Agency will provide important ground station information for Chang’e 5.
US law, however, still prevents most collaborations with NASA, with the exception of China partnering with the International Space Station. That has prompted China to start working on its own space station and launch its own programs that have placed it in constant competition with Japan and India, among Asian nations trying to identify new achievements in space.
China’s space program has progressed carefully, with relatively few obstacles in recent years. The rocket used for the current launch failed on a previous launch attempt, but has since performed without slippage, including the launch of Chang’e 4.
“China is working incrementally, developing building blocks for long-term use for a variety of missions,” said Freese-Johnson. China’s one-party authoritarian system also allows for “prolonged political will that is often difficult in democracies,” he said.
Although the United States has followed China’s successes closely, it is unlikely to expand cooperation with China in space amid political suspicions, sharp military contention and accusations of Chinese technology theft, experts say.
“A change in US policy on space cooperation is unlikely to get much government attention in the near future,” said Johnson-Freese.