China's Chang'e 5 mission to the Moon has just entered lunar orbit. The mission will bring back to Earth the first Moon samples to Earth since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. These samples will also be the youngest ever returned to Earth at 1.2 billion years old.
China has put great effort, money, and technology into exploring the Moon. Their latest mission to the Moon’s surface is evidence of how important and interesting the Moon seems to be for China. Unlike other countries, China has developed in recent years technologies, orbiters, satellites, landers, and rovers tasked with specific purposes on the Moon.
China’s Chang’e 4 mission on the far side of the Moon has been a great success, and the lander and rover continue operating to this day after having touched down on the lunar surface in January 2019.
After a 112-hour journey, China’s space engineers reported that the Chang’e-5 spacecraft entered orbit around the Moon. The robotic mission is the first lunar sample return mission since the 1970s. It is evidence of the effort put into the Moon by the Asian country, which has greatly developed their space exploration goals in recent years.
The Chang’e 5 mission was launched last week (November 23, 2020) from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, soaring into the sky on top of a Long March 5 rocket.
China’s Lunar Exploration Program recently revealed that their spacecraft has successfully entered lunar orbit; “At 8:58 p.m. on November 28, the Chang’e-5 probe flew to the Moon for approximately 112 hours and successfully fired a 3,000 N engine at a distance of 400 kilometers from the lunar surface. Approximately 17 minutes later, the engine shut down normally. Based on the monitoring and judgment of the real-time telemetry data, the Chang’e-5 probe reduced its approach speed and entered lunar orbit without problems.”
The report further stated that “The Chang’e-5 probe underwent two orbital corrections during the Earth-Moon transfer process and achieved the expected goal.”
If all goes according to plan—and so far so good—the ambitious Chang’e 5 lunar mission will transport pristine samples from our satellite to Earth in mid-December, something that has not been done since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.
Although Chinese officials have been characteristically vague on the Chang’e 5 mission’s details, it is known that, although brief, it will be exhilarating.
The 8,200 kg spacecraft is expected to send two of its four modules, a lander, and a lift vehicle, to the lunar surface within the next couple of days.
This part of the mission will land in the Mons Rumker area of the huge volcanic plain Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms). Portions of this region have been explored by several other surface missions, including NASA’s Apollo 12 in 1969.
We know that the lander—a stationary lunar laboratory—will study its surroundings with a series of cameras, a ground-penetrating radar, and a spectrometer. However, its main mission objective is to retrieve as much as two kilograms of lunar material, some of which will be excavated from a depth of up to two meters.
The lunar material acquisition will be made in two weeks, or one lunar day. The mission will run on a tight schedule because the Chang’e 5 lander is powered by solar energy and will not operate once the area enters into a lunar night.
The region from where the lander is expected to excavate the lunar materials—Mons Rümker—is home to geological features believed to have formed some 1.2 billion years ago.
In comparison, lunar rocks retrieved and delivered to Earth by Apollo astronauts between 1969 and 1972 are considerably older—between 3.1 and 4.4 billion years old, the Planetary Society explained.
This means that samples that Chang’e 5 is expected to recover from the Moon should be the youngest ever brought to Earth at 1.2 billion years old.
During this time—1.2 billion years ago—multicellular life already existed on the planet.
The Chang’e-5 will help scientists understand how many of the Moon’s geological features formed and how the Earth and the solar system evolved.
Source and reference: The Planetary Society / China Lunar Exploration Project
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