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.