Chinese space agency photo shows the Chang'e-5 lander on the moon. If all goes well, it will return drill samples to earth. Credit: CNSA.

It could not have gone better for China’s burgeoning space program.

Make no mistake, the landing of Chinese robotic lunar probe Chang’e-5 on the surface of Earth’s celestial neighbor was seen and heard, around the world.

This was not just another space exploration program — it was an amazing technological milestone. And there will be more to come.

According to The Global Times, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said in a statement that as of 4:53 am Wednesday, the Chang’e-5 lander-ascender had completed drilling the moon’s surface near Mons Rümker, a mountain in the Ocean of Storms, and sealed the samples it had collected.

As planned, just 19 hours after its smooth landing, the ascender took off from the moon’s surface with the rare soil and rock samples, its 3,000-newton thrust engine sending it to the lunar orbiter, some 200 kilometres above the moon.

The latter rendezvous was successful — yet another aerospace first — and the Chang’e-5’s lunar probe departed from the re-entry capsule at 12:35 pm Sunday, CNSA said. It will continue orbiting the moon before setting out on its journey back to Earth.

Touchdown of the re-entry capsule is planned for North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Right before the lift-off of Chang’e-5’s ascender from the lunar surface, the lander unfolded the five-star red national flag, a genuine one made from special fabrics.

An ordinary national flag on Earth would not survive the severe lunar environment, so a research team spent more than a year selecting the proper materials.

This was to make sure the eventual flag would be strong enough, survive under extreme coldness and heat and capable of showing the fine colors of the national flag and remain so forever, said Cheng Chang, a leading member of the developer team.

Named after the moon goddess of Chinese mythology, Chang’e-5 uses a combination of a robotic arm and drilling equipment for its automatic and robotic sample collection from multiple points on the moon’s surface and deeper ground, Global Times reported.

Developers work on a miniature of the Chang’e-5’s automatic flag presentation system. Photo: Courtesy CASIC.

Jiang Shuiqing, chief designer of the Chang’e-5 probe, said the Chinese spacecraft adopts an “automatic robotic” method in the surface operation stage, which is unique when compared to previous human lunar sample retrieval missions, and marked a world first, Global Times reported.

The China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) designer team developed highly dexterous robotic arms for the lander vehicle. At the end of robotic arms are two types of samplers — one can perform scooping and the other one is capable of drilling up to 2 meters.

“Sample collection on a celestial body normally combines the scoop and the drill, since the materials on the surface are usually too complicated to analyze due to all kinds of space weathering effects, and it is the soil and rocks underground that are most valuable for studying,” Wang Ya’nan, chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told the Global Times. 

Scientists believe that the landing site contains rocks and soil that are about 1.2 billion years old. It has never been visited either by a probe or human, and scientists believe it will fill an important gap in their understanding of the moon’s volcanic activities.

If fully successful, China will become the first country to bring moon materials back to Earth since 1976. 

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union successfully carried out three robotic sample return missions that retrieved a total of 330 grams of lunar soil. The Chang’e-5 plans to bring back 2 kilograms in one single mission. 

The gap in weight reflects how much the ability to retrieve lunar samples has advanced over the past decades, Pang Zhihao said. 

He explained that back in the 1970s, the Soviet Union missions adopted a direct ascending and return plan from the lunar surface, which required the ascender to use large amounts of fuel to carry the huge load on the return capsule, resulting in the sample weight being greatly reduced.

The Chang’e-5, however, is expected to carry out rendezvous and docking with the orbital module in the lunar orbit, greatly reducing the amount of fuel needed for the ascender and allowing room for more samples, Global Times reported.

“Samples have to be sealed up in case any contamination occurs during the course back to earth,” Luan Enjie, the chief commander of China’s first lunar mission told CCTV. “The Moon environment is very different from the Earth, so samples need to be stored in a very clean container,” he added.

Chang’e 5 isn’t the only sample-return game in town, according to

Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission successfully delivered pieces of the asteroid Ryugu to Earth on Dec. 5, after landing in a remote region of Woomera, Australia.

The capsule’s beacon signal has been detected by search teams, and it will be recovered on Sunday, Dec. 6.

“It was great … It was a beautiful fireball, and I was so impressed,” said JAXA’s Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda as he celebrated the successful capsule return and safe landing from a command centre in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.

“I’ve waited for this day for six years.”

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe also collected samples of the space rock Bennu in late October. The Bennu samples are scheduled to come home in September 2023.