China lands on moon in first mission to retrieve lunar rocks for 44 years

Rob Waugh
·Contributor
·3-min read
HAINAN PROVINCE, CHINA  NOVEMBER 24, 2020: The Long March 5 rocket carrying Change 5 is seen on the launch pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Site on Hainan. The 8.2-tonne Change 5 probe, which consists of a lander, an ascender, a service module and a return capsule, is the sixth mission of the Chinese lunar exploration programme Change. The goal of the mission is to collect lunar soil and rock samples from Oceanus Procellarum and bring them back to the Earth. If successful, Change 5 will be the first sample-return mission since 1976. Artyom Ivanov/TASS (Photo by Artyom Ivanov\TASS via Getty Images)
The probe will be the first sample-return mission since 1976. (Artyom Ivanov/TASS via Getty Images)

China has landed a spacecraft on the surface of the moon in a mission to return four pounds of moon rock to Earth.

It’s the first such mission in 44 years – and would make China only the third nation to have retrieved samples, after the United States and Soviet Union.

The Chang’e-5 probe was launched on 24 November, and deployed a lander vehicle to the moon’s surface.

The mission will attempt to collect samples in a previously unvisited area in a massive lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”).

Read more: Mysterious “rogue planet” could be even weirder than we thought

Upon landing, the lander vehicle will drill into the ground with a robotic arm, then transfer its soil and rock samples to an ascender vehicle.

The ascender will lift off and dock with an orbiting module.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said it would start collecting samples on the lunar surface in the next two days.

HAINAN PROVINCE, CHINA  NOVEMBER 24, 2020: The Long March 5 rocket carrying Change 5 lifts off from the launch pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Site on Hainan. The 8.2-tonne Change 5 probe, which consists of a lander, an ascender, a service module and a return capsule, is the sixth mission of the Chinese lunar exploration programme Change. The goal of the mission is to collect lunar soil and rock samples from Oceanus Procellarum and bring them back to the Earth. If successful, Change 5 will be the first sample-return mission since 1976. Artyom Ivanov/TASS (Photo by Artyom Ivanov\TASS via Getty Images)
The 8.2-tonne Chang’e-5 probe consists of a lander, an ascender, a service module and a return capsule. (Artyom Ivanov/TASS via Getty Images)

The samples would be transferred to a return capsule for the trip back to Earth, landing in China’s Inner Mongolia region.

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.

Read more: Astronomers find closest black hole to Earth

In the Apollo programme, which first put men on the moon, the United States landed 12 astronauts over six flights from 1969 to 1972, bringing back 382kg (842 pounds) of rocks and soil.

The Soviet Union deployed three successful robotic sample return missions in the 1970s. The last, the Luna 24, retrieved 170.1 grams (six ounces) of samples in 1976 from Mare Crisium, or “Sea of Crises”.

China made its first lunar landing in 2013.

In January last year, the Chang’e-4 probe touched down on the far side of the moon, the first space probe from any nation to do so.

Watch: China’s moon mission moves into key phase

The Chang’e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover captured spectacular images of the ‘dark side’ of the moon – the one invisible from Earth.

The Yutu-2 rover was the first vehicle to explore the dark side of the moon.

Read more: What are fast radio bursts, and why do they look like aliens?

The far side has been observed many times from lunar orbits, but never explored on the surface.

It is popularly called the 'dark side' because it cannot be seen from Earth and is relatively unknown, not because it lacks sunlight.

The pioneering landing highlighted China's ambitions to rival the US, Russia and Europe in space through manned flights and the planned construction of a permanent space station.