China successfully dispatched the final Chang’e missions to the moon on Monday. Chang’e 5 is the most ambitious yet and, if successful, China will become the third country to return lunar surface samples (after the Soviet Union and the US). While the mission is quite complex with a lot of potential for things to go wrong, it also happens on a tight schedule, so we’ll have a good idea of how it’s going in three weeks.
Back and forth
Named after a moon goddess, China’s Chang’e program began in 2007 with the launch of the Chang’e 1 orbiter. Over time, the missions have become more complex. Chang’e 3 saw the deployment of a rover on the lunar surface, and Chang’e 4 made history with the first landing on the far side of the moon. The missions have already yielded exciting scientific data and many photos of previously unexplored regions of the moon.
Now China plans to get something back from the moon that cannot be distilled down to a series of ones and zeros. As with two previous missions, Chang’e 5 will send a lander to the surface once lunar orbit is completed. But this time, the lander will be accompanied by a sample return vehicle. After using a drill and shovel to load that with up to two kilograms of material, the monster return vehicle will lift off from the lunar surface and rendezvous with the vehicle that brought it to the moon.
Once the monster return vehicle and orbiter are reunited, the monsters are transferred to a return capsule and the orbiter returns to Earth. The return pod will then separate from the rest of the hardware and the monsters will land in the Inner Mongolia region.
Taken together, the mission is impressively complex. It requires a soft landing, successful deployment of the rover, collecting and storing monsters, a launch from the moon, an encounter in Earth orbit and a safe return to Earth – all managed remotely. That means multiple steps for things to go wrong, with the mission ending unless everything goes right. If successfully handled, it will be another indication that China has become a major player in solar system exploration.
A tight schedule
In any case, we’ll know soon. China’s National Space Agency expects the entire mission to take 23 days, although the rover has imaging capabilities and will remain active after it finishes collecting samples.
If successful, the lunar samples will be the first to return to Earth since the 1970s. The Chinese National Space Agency already has guidelines ready for the scientific use of any samples that successfully return to our planet, and it plans to grant access to the international community.
For now, though, all hardware is on its way to the moon after yesterday’s successful launch. The landing is not expected for a few days, and two days later the monster will be launched from the lunar surface.