China expects to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the Moon this week to bring back lunar rocks in the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from Earth’s natural satellite since the 70s.
This is just a step towards the China National Space Administration establishing a robotic base station on the Moon for unmanned experiments in the south polar region within the decade.
In January 2019, China National Space Administration’s Chang’e-4 probe touched down on the far side of the Moon, the first by any nation’s space probe. Now the Chang’e-5 probe will attempt to collect samples that can help scientists understand more about the Moon’s origin.
The Chang’e-4 probe, scheduled to launch in coming days, will attempt to collect 2kg of samples in a previously unvisited area in a massive lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum, or “Ocean of Storms”.
If successful, the mission will make China only the third country to have retrieved lunar samples, following the US and the Soviet Union decades ago.
Since the Soviet Union crash-landed the Luna 2 on the Moon in 1959, the first human-made object to reach another celestial body, a handful of other countries including Japan and India have launched Moon missions.
In the Apollo program, which first put men on the Moon, the US landed 12 astronauts over six flights from 1969 to 1972, bringing back 382kg of rocks and soil, Reuters reported.
The Soviet Union deployed three successful robotic sample return missions in the 1970s. The last, the Luna 24, retrieved 170.1 grams of samples in 1976 from Mare Crisium, or “Sea of Crises”.
“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,” James Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, told Reuters.
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 said.
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. Its current Moon program is to be developed through the Chang’e-6, -7 and -8 missions through the next decade and expanded through the 2030s ahead of manned landings.
In July, China launched an unmanned probe to Mars in its first independent mission to another planet. China plans to retrieve samples from Mars by 2030.