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China launches mission to bring back moon samples

China launched a robotic probe today on a mission that could bring back the first samples of moon rocks and dirt in more than 40 years.

The Chang’e-5 spacecraft was sent into space from south China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center at 4:30 a.m. local time Nov. 24 (12:30 p.m. PT Nov. 23) atop a heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket.

Like China’s previous lunar probes, Chang’e-5 is named after a moon goddess in Chinese mythology. This probe consists of an orbiter, a lander, an ascent vehicle and a re-entry capsule.

The 9-ton craft went into an Earth-moon transfer trajectory that should get it to lunar orbit in five days. On Nov. 29 or so, the paired lander and ascent vehicle are expected to separate from the orbiter and touch down on a lava dome known as Mons Rümker.

The mound is thought to contain rocks that formed relatively recently in geological terms — 1.2 billion years ago. Samples from such a region could yield the youngest rocks ever brought back from the moon, and shed new light on recent phases of lunar geology.

Chang’e-5’s lander is designed to study its surroundings with cameras and scientific instruments, including a ground-penetrating radar and a spectrometer. The most important scientific payloads are a mechanical scoop and a drill that can go 7 feet beneath the surface.

Because the lander is solar-powered, all of the lunar surface operations will have to be completed in the course of two weeks, before the two-week-long lunar night begins at Mons Rümker.

Up to 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of samples can be stowed on the ascent vehicle, which is due to blast off from the lunar surface in early December, make a rendezvous with the orbiter and transfer the material to the re-entry capsule.

If all goes according to plan, the orbiter will carry the capsule back from the moon and drop it off as it flies past Earth in mid-December. The capsule is designed to weather atmospheric re-entry and make a parachute-aided touchdown in the deserts of Inner Mongolia.

The last time a probe brought back fresh samples from the moon was back in 1976, thanks to the Soviet Luna 24 mission. NASA’s Apollo moon missions returned more than 800 pounds of lunar rock and soil for study on Earth between 1969 and 1972.

Peng Jing, the deputy chief designer of the Chinese moon probe, said Chang’e-5 could be considered a “milestone mission.”

“Its success will help us acquire the basic capabilities for future deep space exploration such as sampling and takeoff from Mars, asteroids and other celestial bodies,” China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Peng as saying.

NASA’s first opportunity to bring back lunar samples could come in 2024, if the Artemis program’s schedule for sending astronauts to the moon and back holds firm. In September, NASA laid out a plan by which commercial space companies could store up samples on the moon and then transfer ownership of that material to the space agency.

NASA took note of the Chang’e-5 launch today in a tweet, and urged China to share mission data with the global scientific community:

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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