China’s latest lunar mission, called Chang’e-5, is on its way to the Moon after a successful launch on Monday from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on Hainan Island.
Assuming everything goes to plan, Chang’e-5 will touch down on the Moon within the next two weeks, scoop up a few kilograms of lunar dust and rocks, and haul them back to Earth next month. If it completes these tasks, it will be the first mission to deliver Moon samples to Earth since the Soviet probe Luna 24 in 1976.
Only the US and the USSR have pulled off this feat, and it has been decades since any other nation has tried it.
The probe blasted off atop China’s heavy-lift rocket, the Long March 5, at 4:30 AM on Tuesday local time. When it is ready to attempt a landing at its target site, a lunar region called Mons Rümker, the probe will separate into a lander, with an attached ascent vehicle, and an orbiter that will stay in space.
After descending to the surface, the lander will drill more than six feet into the Moon’s surface and pack the ascent vehicle with about four pounds of rocks from Mons Rümker, which is a younger part of the Moon’s surface compared to the sites explored by past lunar sample-return missions.
The ascent vehicle will then launch and rendezvous with the orbiter, leaving the lander on the surface to die in the cold of the next lunar night. The lunar goods will be transferred from the ascent vehicle to a sample-return capsule, which will take off for Earth on its own. The valuable package is scheduled to parachute to a site in Mongolia in mid-December.
Chang-e-5 is China’s third lunar surface probe, joining Chang’e-3, which landed on the Moon in December 2013, and Chang’e-4, which has been operating on the far side of the Moon since January 2019.
These previous probes were also trailblazers: Chang’e-3 was the first probe to soft-land (as in, not crash) on the Moon since Luna 24, and Chang’e-4 is the first and only mission that has ever landed on the far side of the Moon.