The American Apollo crewed missions to the moon brought back in total some 840 pounds of pure, uncut, sweet moon-meat. In 1976, the last bit of lunar material was brought to Earth by the Soviet Luna 24 sample return mission, all of about seven ounces of moon soil. Since then we’ve had no fresh, new moon material to study and enjoy. This dry streak may soon be coming to a close, as the Chinese robotic lander, Chang’e 5, successfully landed on the moon today, and will, we hope, soon send back about four pounds of moon chunks.
There was some confusion earlier over whether the probe actually managed to land. The live video feed of the landing was cut off just before the burn of the landing engine would have begun, possibly because the Chinese space agency wanted to maintain some secrecy in case the mission were to fail. They’re not always the most forthcoming, so it really wasn’t clear.
Soon, though, the lander was confirmed to have touched down. A robotic arm will drill a six-foot deep hole and remove what will effectively be a core sample. That cylinder of material will then be transferred to an ascent stage, which will launch into lunar orbit, rendezvous and dock with the orbiter. The sample will next be transferred to a “returner,” a spacecraft with proper heat shielding to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere for collection, which is scheduled to happen in Inner Mongolia in the middle of the month.
Here’s a video showing livestream when the lander actually touched down:
Ideally, we’ll know in the next few days if the lander and systems are all looking good, and then soon after, how the sample collection, extraction and launch of the ascent module goes. The mission has a sort of compressed timeline to get everything done, because the solar-powered Chang’e 5 spacecraft will be in sunlight for only about two weeks.
This is by far China’s most complex lunar mission, and perhaps one of its most ambitious space missions ever, crewed or uncrewed.
Lessons learned from this mission could likely be applied to a future crewed lunar landing. With the U.S. planning a return to the moon around 2024 or so, perhaps we’ll have a new, exciting space race on our hands.