Bengaluru: China is eyeing a rare feat with its Chang’e-5 (pronounced “chung-uh five”) mission, which landed on the Moon Tuesday. If things go according to plan, the mission will return to Earth by mid-December with around 2 kg of lunar soil and rock samples to allow scientists a closer look at the satellite.
Lunar sample-return missions have so far only been pulled off by two other countries, the US and the erstwhile USSR. China’s is the first lunar sample-return mission since 1976, when the erstwhile Soviet Union’s Luna 24 returned with lunar samples.
The Chang’e-5 lander is currently situated on Mons Rümker, a young 1.2 billion-year-old volcanic rock on the western edge of the Moon’s near side.
The samples the mission collects will be loaded on to an ascent vehicle, which will then fire itself using a rocket and dock with the orbiter. The samples are expected to land in the Inner Mongolia region.
Chang’e-5 is part of China’s ambitious lunar mission, which itself stems from the country’s efforts to expand its space programme. Over the coming years, China aims to deepen its lunar presence and set up a base for astronauts on the Moon by the 2030s.
China’s Moon programme
China’s lunar mission is being executed in four phases.
Phase 1 involved a spacecraft being inserted into the lunar orbit. Chang’e-1 did so successfully in 2007. The following mission, Chang’e-2, proved a success too in 2010. After achieving the goal of entering the lunar orbit, the spacecraft took off to explore other objects in space. It is scheduled to return somewhere closer to Earth in 2029.
Chang’e-3 & 4 comprised Phase 2, which involved landing and roving on the Moon. The former mission did so in 2013, while the latter created history by landing on the far side of the moon in 2019.
Phase three involves sample returns, to be performed by Chang’e-5 mission and the planned (2024) Chang’e-6 mission. Both will return lunar regolith (soil) samples from the near side.
The final phase involves setting up a scientific station on the moon, which will be performed by Chang’e-7 & 8 over the next decade. These missions will include orbiters, landers, rovers, and miniature flying spacecraft that will survey the lunar South Pole for exploitable natural resources. They will also be equipped with 3D printers and will help set up instruments for a lunar science base.
China eventually plans to land humans on the Moon and set up a crewed outpost at the South Pole in the 2030s as part of an international scientific collaboration.
China’s space leaps
The space programme of the People’s Republic of China is carried out by the China National Space Administration (CNSA), which was set up in the early years of the Cold War era. After many years of focusing on developing missiles, China started to work on launch vehicles or rockets in the 1970s.
The same decade, China also started to launch satellites into space, first through foreign launch vehicles, and then its own.
The first Chinese astronaut in space was Yang Liwei, who flew aboard the Shenzhou 5 in 2003. At the time, China was only the third country to fly a human being to space.
China’s space plans reportedly include secretive work on reusable spacecraft technology.
As things stand, China is among the leading players in the space of lunar exploration. So far, only the former Soviet Union, the US, and China have managed to successfully perform soft landings on the Moon. India (Chandrayaan-2) and Israel failed in their attempts to send landers to the Moon last year.
Crewed landings, however, have only been performed by Americans as part of the Apollo programme. All the countries mentioned above have sent orbiters to the Moon, as has Japan.
Among upcoming missions, India is planning to send Chandrayaan-3 to the lunar South Pole to attempt a landing in 2021, before collaborating with Japan on the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission (LUPEX), which is slated for a 2023 launch.
The US is planning to send “the first woman and the next man” to the Moon aboard the Artemis missions by 2024.
Russia has said it will start to focus on the Moon and “leave Mars to NASA” in order to avoid a space race and share resources more efficiently.
Germany, Mexico, South Korea, the UAE, Japan, and the UK all plan to send orbiters or rovers to the Moon over the next decade.