From the Earth, to the Moon, and back again.
In a superb feat of aerospace robotic technology, China’s Chang’e-5 mission has returned to Earth with a special cargo of “rock and soil” it picked up off the Moon, BBC News reported, something that has not happened in more than 40 years.
A capsule carrying the materials landed in Inner Mongolia shortly after 01:30 local time on Thursday (17:30 GMT, Wednesday), the China National Space Agency announced (CNSA).
It’s been decades since the American Apollo and Soviet Luna missions brought their samples home, BBC reported, and scientists hope the new specimens should provide fresh insight on the geology and early history of Earth’s satellite.
For China, the successful completion of the Chang’e-5 venture will also be seen as yet another demonstration of the nation’s increasing capability in space — an achievement duly noted in America and Russia.
Recovery teams were quick to move in on the returned capsule. It was first spotted by helicopters using infrared cameras. Support staff following up in SUVs planted a Chinese flag in the snow-covered grassland next to the module, BBC reported.
The Chang’e-5 venture was launched at the end of November.
A probe comprising several elements was sent into orbit around the Moon. These elements then separated, with one half going down to the lunar surface.
The lander system used a scoop and a drill to dig up samples. It’s believed the probe retrieved about 1,731 grams of lunar samples, according to CNSA.
An ascent vehicle subsequently carried the materials back into lunar orbit where they were transferred to an Earth-return module. This was shepherded home by a fourth element and released just before it had to make the fiery descent through Earth’s atmosphere, BBC reported.
Returning from the Moon, the Chang’e-5 module would have been moving much faster than, say, a capsule coming back from the International Space Station.
Engineers had chosen to scrub some of this extra energy by doing an initial “skip” in the atmosphere. This saw the module briefly dip into the gases that shroud our planet, before then plunging much deeper to try to reach Earth’s surface, BBC reported.
The Chang’e-5 capsule was targeted to float down on parachute to Siziwang Banner in Inner Mongolia. This is the same location used to bring Chinese astronauts home.
A total of just under 400kg of lunar surface materials were collected by American Apollo astronauts and the Soviets’ robotic Luna landers.
But all these samples were very old — more than three billion years in age. Chang’e-5’s rock and dust should be quite different, BBC reported.
According to Global Times, part of the rare samples will be preserved in Shaoshan, Hunan as a tribute to late Chinese leader Mao Zedong, to commemorate the leader and his passion for space exploration.
The Chinese mission targeted a high volcanic region called Mons Rümker in the northwest of the nearside of the Moon.
Samples from this terrain may be no more than 1.2 or 1.3 billion years old, and, as such, should provide additional information on how the Moon is constructed internally.
“All of the volcanic rocks collected by Apollo were older than 3 billion years. And all of the young impact craters whose ages have been determined from the analysis of samples are younger than 1 billion years,” Bradley Jolliff, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, told Space.com.
“So the Chang’e 5 samples will fill a critical gap,” Jolliff said. “These samples will be a treasure trove!”
The samples will also allow scientists to more precisely calibrate the “chronometer” they use to age surfaces on the inner Solar System planets, BBC reported.
The Moon is once again in vogue. America is planning on returning astronauts to the surface in the middle of this decade. A series of robotic spacecraft will land ahead of these human explorers to do reconnaissance.
Meanwhile, eight nations have signed the so-called Artemis Accords, a set of principles outlining the responsible exploration of the Moon — but China and Russia have not, leading to speculation those nations may in fact be looking to militarize the Moon, or possibly dominate its resources in a lunar mineral rush.
According to Space.com, the path is now clear for those eight nations — Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and (unsurprisingly) the US — to participate in NASA’s Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration.
Artemis aims to land two astronauts near the lunar south pole in 2024 and establish a sustainable human presence on and around the moon by the end of the decade — bold goals that NASA aims to achieve with the help of international and private-sector partners.
NASA plans to exploit lunar resources extensively for the benefit of the world, especially the water ice that seems to be plentiful on the permanently shadowed floors of lunar craters.
This ice can not only provide life support for astronauts, it can also be split into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, the chief components of rocket fuel.