BEIJING, CHINA – A rocket heading for the moon to bring back the first lunar samples in four decades blasted off from China on Tuesday in the latest milestone for Beijing’s spacefaring ambitions.
China has poured billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and of eventually sending humans to the Moon.
The mission’s goal is to shovel up lunar rocks and soil to help scientists learn about the Moon’s origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.
Named for the mythical Chinese moon goddess
State TV footage of the launch showed the rocket blasting off into a dark night and carrying the Chang’e-5 probe — named for the mythical Chinese moon goddess — with huge clouds of smoke billowing out underneath.
The eight-tonne spacecraft took off at 4:30 am (2030 GMT Monday) at the Wenchang Space Center on the southern island province of Hainan.
Crowds watched the launch from the beach on the tropical Chinese island, holding mobile phones aloft to film as the rocket blasted into the sky.
Was delayed due to an engine failure
The original mission, planned for 2017, was delayed due to an engine failure in the Long March 5 rocket.
If successful, China will be only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, following the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Chinese probe will collect two kilogrammes (4.5 pounds) of surface material in a previously unexplored area known as Oceanus Procellarum — or “Ocean of Storms” — which consist of a vast lava plain, according to the science journal Nature.
The probe is expected to land in late November and collect material during one lunar day -– equivalent to around 14 Earth days.
The samples will then be returned to Earth in a capsule programmed to land in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region in early December, according to US space agency NASA.
One of the most risky missions
The mission is technically challenging and involves several innovations not seen during previous attempts at collecting moon rocks, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“The US never did a robotic sample return. The Soviet one was very limited and could only land at certain restricted spots,” McDowell told AFP.
“China’s system will be the most flexible and capable robotic sample return system yet.”
A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019, in a global first that boosted Beijing’s aspirations to become a space superpower.
It was the second Chinese probe to land on the Moon, following the Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) rover mission in 2013.
Chen Lan, an independent analyst at GoTaikonauts, which specialises in China’s space programme, said the latest launch was a chance for China to develop technology that would be used in a future manned space landing and described it as “one of the most risky missions launched by China”.
“It not only needs to take off from the lunar surface and to re-enter the Earth atmosphere in higher speed, but also to perform lunar orbit rendezvous and docking operations in lunar orbit,” Chen told AFP.
The official Xinhua news agency on Tuesday hailed the Chang’e-5 launch as a sign of China’s leadership in space.
It has always been commited to sharing the achievements
“Although China is now taking the lead in lunar exploration through decades of independent innovation in space technologies, it has always been committed to sharing the achievements,” Xinhua said in a commentary.
The latest Chang’e-5 probe is among a slew of ambitious targets set by Beijing, which include creating a super-powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those NASA and private rocket firm SpaceX can handle, a lunar base, a permanently crewed space station, and a Mars rover.