China successfully launched an unmanned spacecraft to the moon Monday to land, gather soil and rock samples, and return them to Earth.
If successful, it will be the first mission by any nation to retrieve samples from the lunar surface since the 1970s, and the third nation, after the United States and Russia, to retrieve such samples.
The Chang’e 5 probe, named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, will seek to collect material that can help scientists understand more about the moon’s origins and formation.
U.S. space agency NASA says the mission’s goal is to land in a previously unvisited area of the moon known as Oceanus Procellarum and operate for one lunar day, which lasts 14 earth days, and return a 2-kilogram sample of lunar soil, possibly from as deep as 2 meters.
Matt Siegler, a research scientist at the Arizona-based Planetary Science Institute who is not part of the Chang’e 5 mission, told Reuters the area where the spacecraft is to land is 1 to 2 billion years old.
“That is very young for the moon — most of our samples are 3.5 billion years old or more,” Siegler said in an email. “We want to find out what is special about these regions and why they remained warm longer than the rest of the moon,” Siegler added.
The sample will travel to Earth in the return capsule and land in the Siziwang Banner grassland of the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia in China.
During a brief government-organized visit to the launch center, reporters were taken to a place where they could see in the distance the Long March 5 rocket that carries the Chang’e 5 probe. The launch took place between 4:30 a.m. Beijing time Tuesday (2030 GMT Monday).
The Reuters news service reports that China made its first lunar landing in 2013. In January 2019, the Chang’e 4 probe touched down on the far side of the moon, the first by any space probe. Within the next decade, China plans to establish a robotic base station to conduct unmanned exploration in the south polar region.