Science

A success for the Chinese lunar sample collection mission Chang’e 5!

This Tuesday 1er December, China’s Chang’e 5 probe successfully landed on the Moon. The event marks another important milestone for the Chinese space program. The probe, which took off from the Wenchang Space Center on November 23, aims to collect moon rock samples and then bring them back to Earth for analysis. These samples should be sent back to Earth within the next fifteen days.

This is a new coup for the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA). In 2019, she had already made a big impression by landing, for the first time in the world, a machine on the far side of the Moon. If the Chinese Agency seems to be redoubling its efforts and increasing its technical prowess, it is also because it plans to send astronauts to our natural satellite by 2030.

Chang’e 5’s main mission is to collect nearly two kilograms of moon rocks. These samples will be taken from a region much younger than those explored by previous American and Soviet missions. The analysis of these materials should thus bring new elements concerning the history of the Moon.

A demonstration of Chinese technology

As part of its lunar exploration program, baptized Chang’e – named after a character in Chinese mythology living on the moon – China had already landed two small unmanned robots, Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4, in 2013 and 2019 respectively. Chang’e 4 was carrying a rover, the Yutu 2, responsible for exploring and analyzing the lunar soil, using various instruments (cameras, spectrometers, radar). The first results, published in May 2019, showed that rocks of the same composition as the lunar mantle were on the surface, suggesting an ancient meteorite impact.

Initially, the Chang’e 5 mission was planned to be launched in 2017, but that same year, a failed shot of the Long March 5 rocket loaded with its propulsion ultimately led to the postponement of the mission. The moon landing finally took place at 4:13 p.m. Paris time on Tuesday; the Chinese space agency shared the images of the operation:

The probe landed in the Ocean of Storms, west of the visible face of the Moon, in the region of Mons Rümker, unexplored so far. This volcanic formation nearly 1000 meters above sea level is of great interest to scientists. As stated above, the rocks therein are estimated to be only 1.2 billion years old, in other words, they are much more “recent” rocks than the samples brought back by previous missions (Apollo and Luna), dated to between 3.1 and 4.4 billion years ago.

Location of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft landing site. The mission will study rock samples much younger than those obtained during past American and Russian missions. Credit: Jessica Flahaut

The machine is responsible for collecting samples on the surface, but also more in depth, thanks to its percussion drilling system (capable of digging up to two meters deep). Weighing just over 8 tonnes, Chang’e 5 is made up of four elements: an orbiter (responsible for remaining in lunar orbit), a moon landing gear, a ascent module (from the ground to the lunar orbit), as well as a capsule (for returning samples to Earth). The probe was not designed to withstand lunar conditions for long, so the mission will be short-lived. It will last two or three days at the most – it could be that the ascent module leaves the lunar soil today.

China prepares its future manned missions

Note that this is the first attempt to bring back lunar rocks since the uninhabited Luna 24 mission, successfully carried out by the former USSR in 1976. The probe had at the time returned 170 g of material. But unlike this Soviet mission, the Chinese probe will not make the return trip directly to Earth after collecting the samples. Once the collection and packaging operations have been completed, the ascent module will separate from the moon landing module to regain lunar orbit, before being transferred to the return capsule. A scenario designated by “the rendezvous in lunar orbit” (or LOR for lunar orbit rendezvous).

chinese moon change mission 5
Diagram of the Chang’e 5 mission. Credits: Wikimedia Commons / Loren Roberts

Chang’e 5 is the third aircraft of the 21st century to land successfully on the Moon. This mission is an opportunity to obtain new data on the formation of the Moon. But for the Chinese Space Agency, it is above all an opportunity to test its latest astronautics technologies in real conditions. China plans to send its next astronauts to the Moon by 2030. In recent years, the country has invested heavily in its space program, in particular with the aim of catching up with the United States, at the Russia and Europe, in space exploration.

China is also today at the heart of space news. This year, the country notably completed the installation of its Beidou-3 navigation system. Initiated in 2015 and fully operational since June, the system has more than thirty satellites and stands out as the main competitor of the GPS system. Finally, China is working on another major project, the “Large Chinese Modular Space Station”, which should be assembled by 2022. This space station in low orbit (300-400 km) should allow experiments to be carried out in microgravity and develop various technologies for future long-duration Chinese crew flights.

China National Space Administration

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