By Ryan Woo
BEIJING – China plans to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the moon this week to bring back moon rocks in a nation’s first attempt to recover samples from Earth’s natural satellite since the 1970s.
The Chang’e-5 probe, named after the ancient Chinese moon goddess, will seek to collect material that can help scientists understand more about the moon’s origins and formation. The mission will test China’s ability to remotely acquire samples from space, before more complex missions.
If successful, the mission will make China only the third country to have recovered lunar samples, after the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago.
Since the Soviet Union landed Luna 2 on the moon in 1959, the first man-made object to reach another celestial body, a handful of other countries, including Japan and India, have launched lunar missions.
In the Apollo program, which first took humans to the moon, the United States landed 12 astronauts on six flights from 1969 to 1972, returning 382 kg (842 lb) of rock and soil.
The Soviet Union deployed three successful robotic champion return missions in the 1970s. The last, the Luna 24, recovered 170.1 grams (6 ounces) of samples in 1976 from Mare Crisium, or “Sea of Crises”.
The Chinese probe, scheduled for launch in the coming days, will attempt to collect 2 kg (4 1/2 lb) of samples from a previously unvisited area in a massive lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum, or “Ocean of Storms”.
“The Apollo-Moon sample zone of the moon, while critical to our understanding, was undertaken in an area that encompasses far less than half the lunar surface,” said James Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University.
Subsequent data from orbital remote sensing missions showed a wider diversity of rock types, mineralogy, and ages than that depicted in the Apollo-Moon sample collections, he said.
“Lunar scientists have supported robotic sample return missions to these many different critical areas in order to address a number of key questions left over from the previous exploration,” Head said.
The Chang’e-5 mission can help answer questions like how long the moon has been volcanically active inside it and when its magnetic field – the key to protecting any life form from solar radiation – has dissipated.
Once in the moon’s orbit, the spacecraft will aim to deploy a couple of vehicles to the surface: a lander will drill through the ground, then transfer its soil and rock samples onto a blocker that will lift and dock with an orbiting module.
If this is successful, the samples will be transferred to a return capsule that will take them back to Earth.
China made its first moon landing in 2013. In January 2019, the Chang’e-4 probe landed on the far side of the moon, the first since any nation’s spacecraft.
Within the next decade, China plans to establish a robotic base station to conduct unmanned exploration in the South Pole region.
It is to be developed through the Chang’e-6，7 and 8 missions until 2020 and expanded until 2030 before manned landings.
China plans to recover samples from Mars by 2030.
In July, China launched an unmanned probe to Mars on its first independent mission to another planet.