A Long March 5 rocket carrying China's Chang'e-5 lunar probe launches from the Wenchang Space Center on Hainan Island. Photo:STR/AFP

China’s Chang’e-5 lunar exploration mission blasted off on Tuesday, the first step of what Chinese space scientists call a “very long and even perilous march” to land on the moon and bring back samples from the lunar surface. 

The early morning launch from the Wenchang cosmodrome off the southern resort island of Hainan was broadcast live by the China Central Television.

CCTV and other state media outlets lost no time in claiming that, with the smooth lift-off atop a Long March-5 heavy transport rocket, China has joined the elite ranks of the former Soviet Union and the United States as a “space superpower” capable of returning extraterrestrial objects back to Earth. 

“The world has not seen any new lunar samples for more than four decades, and now it’s high time China ended the lull in mankind’s lunar exploration and research, to not only leave China’s stamp on the Earth’s natural satellite but also bring part of it to Earth, with lunar rock, soil and regolith samples available for the worldwide scientific community to study,” read an editorial by the People’s Daily. 

Tuesday’s successful lift-off was broadcast live by CCTV and watched by many Chinese despite the early-morning timing. Photo: Xinhua

The Communist Party mouthpiece quoted Pei Zhaoyu, the deputy director of the China National Space Administration’s Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center, as saying that the Chang’e-5 mission was also proof that China was nearly capable of sending taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) to the moon and returning them safely to Earth.

However, he acknowledged that a manned space trip would be far more technically challenging than scooping up a bag of rocks and debris and have it delivered back to Earth.

Pei added that the current 810,000-kilometer round trip would test the reliability of all systems from landing on the moon to re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere for future manned programs as well as deep space exploration, including China’s Mars projects.

There have also been calls in China that Beijing should ratchet up its funding and support so that taikonauts could pip their American peers in the new race to the moon. NASA’s chief Jim Bridenstine said last year that the agency aimed to send US astronauts back to the moon by around 2024. 

The high-profile Chang’e-5 mission was years in the making and consists of a service module, a lunar lander, an ascender, and most importantly, a return capsule, with a total weight of more than 8 tonnes. 

The Chang’e-5, named after China’s ancient mythological moon goddess, will reach the moon some time after November 27. Great stakes are attached to the high-wire act of a rendezvous and docking in the lunar orbit 200 kilometers above the lunar surface to begin the Chang’e-5’s return leg.

This can only happen after a lander-ascender combination takes off from the Oceanus Procellarum, also known as the Ocean of Storms, on the near side of the moon following the vital sample collection there.

The in-orbit docking will involve an ascender and an orbiter-returner as well as the transfer of a sample container to be flown back to a landing site in the wilderness of China’s northern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region around December 16 to 17.

The Long March-5 rocket is transported from its final assembly plant to a launching pad at the Wenchang Cosmodrome in Hainan on Monday. Photo: Xinhua

“It’s a little bit premature for Chinese state media to announce the success of the entire mission now that the spacecraft has not reached the moon yet,” said a mainland PhD student with a Hong Kong university faculty involved in part of the spacecraft’s design.

“The most challenging part is of course the Chang’e-5’s relaunch from the moon and its rendezvous as well as re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, a process fraught with risks and even a small glitch, be it about navigation or communications, can forsake all the efforts,” said the student, who was with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s (PolyU) Faculty of Engineering that designed the Chang’e-5’s surface sampling and packing system as well as its related high-endurance robotic arms and cameras. 

Still, he was optimistic that the entire mission could succeed, given China’s impressive track record and the success rate in missions since 2004. 

“The [surface sampling and packing] system we designed for the mission was nearly foolproof, with substantial redundancy and precision engineering backup power built in. I think Beijing has also picked other top-flight teams across mainland China to design and build other key systems,” said the scholar, who requested anonymity.  

“Unlike statistical data that can be easily falsified, Beijing cannot control or hide what will happen on the moon and throughout Chang’e-5’s round trip, and the entire world is watching,” he said.

Professor Yung Kai-leung, who led the Hong Kong PolyU team, said the return of samples was complex and risky. 

“The surface sampling and packing system is one of the most critical components of the Chang’e-5 mission, a core, make-or-break part,” Yung said.

“It took more than six prototype production phases through various stages of space qualification to complete the project, not to mention the pre-production research, system design, discussions and meetings with the China Academy of Space Technology,” he said.

Xinhua also revealed that the Chang’e-5 mission had adopted a sampling approach different from those of the US and the former Soviet Union, as the Chinese mission would bring back heavier samples. The US sent astronauts in manned missions to collect samples, while Soviet spacecraft took off from the moon and returned to Earth directly. 

Also, the sampling site was chosen because the region had a young geological age, younger than the sampling areas of the US and the Soviet Union more than 40 years ago. 

The Chang’e-5 spacecraft embarked on its odyssey to the moon atop the Long March-5 heavy transport rocket. Photo: Xinhua

Xinhua also said that China could soon dispatch spacecraft to collect samples and take off from Mars and even some near-Earth asteroids. 

China kickstarted its three-step lunar exploration program in 2004. In 2019, the Chang’e-4 made a historic landing on the lunar far side, uncharted territory not reached yet by the US or the Soviet Union. It is currently collecting measurements of radiation exposure from the lunar surface, information vital for sending astronauts in the future to the moon.

Beijing is also planning a launching spree within the next ten years to put modules in the Low Earth Orbit and assemble them into a space station called the Tiangong, as the International Space Station approaches the end of its service life. US laws ban most space exploration cooperation with China and have excluded China from partnering with the International Space Station.