For the first time in 44 years, a spacecraft has brought lunar samples to Earth. With the Chang’e 5 mission complete, China now joins a very exclusive club, reinforcing the country’s role as a major player in space exploration.
China is now only the third country to collect samples from the Moon and bring them to Earth. The last time this happened was in 1976, when the Soviet Union did the same as part of its Luna 24 mission. NASA, during the course of its six Apollo missions, managed to collect and retrieve 842 pounds of lunar regolith and rocks.
The Chinese capsule containing the samples landed in Siziwang Banner, just north of China’s Inner Mongolia region, at 1:59 a.m. local time, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The Chang’e 5 mission included many firsts for the Chinese space program, including the first lunar sampling and sealing mission, the first rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit, and the first spacecraft to perform an atmospheric re-entry with samples on board, as Chinese state media Xinhua reports.
The capsule was 3,100 miles (5,000 km) above the southern Atlantic Ocean when it separated from the orbiter. Prior to making the big plunge, the capsule bounced off the atmosphere while traveling at 7 miles per second (11.2 km/s), which it did to reduce speed, bringing it down to a more manageable 5 miles per second (7.9 km/s). A parachute allowed it to safely drift to the surface, where it was retrieved by ground crews. As Xinhua reports, the recovery team will briefly inspect the capsule, and then fly it to Beijing for further analysis.
Specifically, the sealed samples will be “transferred to specially designed laboratories for analyses, experiments and tests so scientists can determine the extraterrestrial substances’ composition, structure and traits, thus deepening their knowledge about the history of the moon and the solar system,” according to CNSA. “A certain proportion of the samples will also be on public display to enhance science awareness among the public, especially young generations, sources close to the mission have said.”
China said it’ll make the samples available to other countries, as CNN reports.
CNSA described the Chang’e 5 mission as “China’s most sophisticated and challenging space adventure.” Indeed, it was the most complex space project yet attempted by the nation, lasting for 23 days and involving many moving parts and potential points of failure.
The mission started on November 24, when a Long March heavy rocket delivered an assembly consisting of an orbiter, lander, ascender, and reentry capsule to space. The lander separated from the lunar orbiter on November 30, landing on the lunar surface the following day. As an interesting aside, China is still the only country in the 21st century to successfully deliver landers to the lunar surface (the others being the Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 landers). Attempts by India in 2017 and Israel in 2019 to do the same ended in catastrophic failure.
The lander was placed in Mons Rümker—an isolated volcanic formation located in the Oceanus Procellarum region of the Moon. This gigantic lava plain was likely created by an impact, and it’s never been explored until now.
Using its drill, the Chang’e 5 lander pulled 18 ounces (500 grams) of material from beneath the surface, while its robotic arm collected upwards of 3.5 pounds (1.5 kg). The research team will have to confirm these quantities once the capsule is opened. After storing the samples in a vacuum chamber, the lander planted a Chinese flag on the surface, bid farewell to the Moon, and then re-joined the orbiter on December 3. It marked the “first time a Chinese spacecraft has blasted off from an extraterrestrial body,” according to CNSA.
Now complete, this mission will do much to further China’s ambitions in space. The CNSA has demonstrated, for example, that it can return samples from another celestial body and perform a docking in lunar orbit. Even bolder missions, including sending Chinese astronauts, known as “yuhangyuans” and sometimes “taikonauts,” to space and the Moon are wholly possible and among the nation’s intentions.
This marks the second time in 11 days that a spacecraft has brought extraterrestrial material to Earth. On December 6, Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully dropped off a capsule containing surface material from asteroid Ryugu. Apparently this is what we do now (and there’s more to come thanks to NASA’s OSIRIX-Rex), which is pretty cool.