By Joe McDonald :
A CHINESE spacecraft landed on the Moon to bring back lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s, the Government announced. The China National Space Administration said that Chang’e 5 “successfully landed” at its designated site shortly after 11 pm. (1500 GMT) on Tuesday after making a powered descent from its orbiter. It published images of the barren scene at the landing site, including where the lander’s shadow can be seen. The lander was launched on November 24 from the tropical southern island of Hainan. It is the latest venture by a Chinese space programme that sent its first astronaut into orbit in 2003, has a spacecraft en route to Mars and aims eventually to land a human on the Moon. Plans call for the lander to spend about two days drilling into the lunar surface and collecting 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rocks and debris.
The sample will be lifted up into orbit and transferred to a return capsule for the trip to Earth, setting down on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia around the middle of the month. If it succeeds, it will be the first time scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rocks since a Soviet probe in the 1970s. Those samples are expected to be made available to scientists from other nations, although its unclear how much access NASA will have, given tight US Government restrictions on space cooperation with China.
From the rocks and debris, scientists hope to learn more about the Moon, including its precise age, as well as increased knowledge about other bodies in our solar system. Collecting samples, including from asteroids, is an increasing focus of many space programmes and China’s mastery of the technology once again places it among the leading nations operating in space. US astronauts with NASA’s Apollo space programme brought back 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of lunar samples from 1969 to 1972, some of which is still being analysed and experimented on. The Chang’e 5 flight is China’s third successful lunar landing. Its predecessor, Chang’e 4, was the first probe to land on the Moon’s little-explored far side. Chinese space programme officials have said that they envision future crewed missions along with robotic ones.