For the first time since 1976, a space mission has traveled to the Moon, picked up lunar surface samples, and brought them back to Earth.
China’s Chang’e-5, which launched three weeks ago, has officially delivered its precious Moon package after a landing on a snowy night in inner Mongolia on Wednesday, according to a livestream from CGTN.
The feat is the latest success for China’s Moon exploration program, which has already claimed many lunar milestones. The nation landed its first probe on the Moon, a lander-rover combo named Chang’e-3, in 2013, which marked the first time any country had soft-landed a robot on the lunar surface in nearly 40 years. China went on to become the first nation ever to land a probe on the far side of the Moon and its Chang’e-4 mission, which is still operational, is about to celebrate its second anniversary there.
Chang’e-5 is China’s most ambitious Moon shot yet, a rapid-pace excursion that demanded perfect performance from multiple spacecraft modules. After its launch on November 23, the spacecraft spent about a week traveling to the Moon and inserting itself into lunar orbit, before it separated into three components: an orbiter, a lander, and an ascent vehicle.
The latter two modules touched down at Mons Rümker, a region on the northwest near side of the Moon, on December 1. The lander spent the next two days scooping up regolith from the surface and extracting underground samples with a six-foot-long drill, then loading them into the ascent vehicle.
On December 3, the ascent vehicle blasted back up to lunar orbit with its cargo, and performed a rendezvous with the orbiter two days later. After transferring the Moon samples to a sample-return capsule carried by the orbiter, the ascent vehicle undocked and later crashed into the Moon on December 7, as planned.
The lander is also defunct at this point, as it was not built to survive the lunar night, which recently fell on the Moon’s near side.
The orbiter performed engine burns to leave lunar orbit and make the half-week trip back to Earth, where it dropped off the sample-return capsule. The capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the early morning hours, local time, on the frozen plains of the Siziwang Banner region of Mongolia.
The arrival of the valuable Moon material formally mints China as the third country to return lunar samples to our planet, after the Soviet Union and the United States. Chang’e-5’s cargo of rocks and dust were extracted from a region covered by volcanic flows a little over one billion years ago, providing the youngest slice of the Moon ever hauled back to Earth.
In addition to its lunar exploration program, China is also reaching beyond the Earth-Moon system. The nation’s first mission to Mars, a rover-lander-orbiter combo called Tianwen-1, launched in July and is due to attempt a landing on the red planet in February.