China's lunar capsule brings home rocks from the moon in historic mission

16 December 2020, 21:01

The Chang'e-5 capsule has returned to Earth after a successful mission
The Chang'e-5 capsule has returned to Earth after a successful mission. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

China's Chang'e-5 lunar capsule has brought home the first fresh samples of rock and debris from the moon in over 40 years.

The Chang'e-5 probe landed in the Siziwang district of the Inner Mongolia region, state media reported shortly after 8pm (UK time) on Wednesday.

The capsule earlier separated from its orbiter module and performed a bounce off the Earth's atmosphere to reduce its speed before passing through and floating to the ground on parachutes.

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Two of the probe's four modules set down on the Moon at the beginning of December and collected around two kilograms of samples.

The machine used a scoop to collect materials from the surface and a drill which extended two metres into the Moon's crust.

The samples were deposited in a sealed container that was carried back to the module by an ascent vehicle.

The return capsule of China's Chang'e-5 probe landed in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region
The return capsule of China's Chang'e-5 probe landed in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Picture: PA Images

The successful mission was the latest breakthrough for China's increasingly ambitious space programme which includes a robot-only mission to Mars and building towards a permanent orbiting space station.

In preparation for the returning capsule, recovery crews with helicopters and off-road vehicles were on stand-by to home in on signals emitted by the lunar spacecraft to locate it in the darkness shrouding the vast snow-covered region in China's far north.

The area has long been used as a landing site for China's Shenzhou crewed spaceships.

The spacecraft's return marked the first time scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rocks since the former Soviet Union's Luna 24 robot probe in 1976.

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Those rocks and debris are thought to be billions of years younger than those obtained by the US and former Soviet Union, offering new insights into the history of the Moon and other bodies in the solar system.

They come from a part of the Moon known as the Oceanus Procellarum - or Ocean of Storms.

Chang'e 5 blasted off from a launch base in China's southern island province of Hainan on November 23.

Flying a Chinese flag, the moon lander stopped functioning soon after it was used as a launching pad for the ascender, which was ejected from the orbiter after transferring the samples and came to rest on the Moon's surface.

It marked China's third successful lunar landing, but the only one to lift off again from the Moon.

China has ramped up its space programme in recent years
China has ramped up its space programme in recent years. Picture: PA Images

The spacecraft's Chang'e-4 predecessor was the first probe to land on the Moon's little-explored far side and continues to send back data on conditions that could affect an extended stay by humans on the surface.

The Moon has been a particular focus of the Chinese space programme, which has said it plans to land humans there and possibly construct a permanent base. No timeline or other details have been announced.

China also has joined the effort to explore Mars. In July, it launched the Tianwen 1 probe, which carried a lander and a robot rover to search for water.

China's space programme has proceeded more cautiously than the US-Soviet space race of the 1960s, which was marked by fatalities and launch failures.

In 2003, China became the third country to send an astronaut into orbit on its own after the Soviet Union and the United States.

The latest flight included collaboration with the European Space Agency, which helped monitor the mission.

Amid concerns over the Chinese space programme's secrecy and close military connections, the US forbids cooperation between Nasa and the CNSA unless Congress gives its approval.

That has prevented China from taking part in the International Space Station, something it has sought to compensate for with the launching of an experimental space station