China’s Chang’e-5 robotic lunar lander will spend only two days collecting lunar rock and earth samples before sending its shipment on its way back to Earth, but he’s making the most of the time.
Just hours after landing on December 1, the probe began using its robotic shovel and drill to excavate material at Mons Rümker, a lava dome in a region called Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms.
It also returned photos and video, including this stunning view from the last minutes before landing. Watch the camera tilt straight down to focus on the target spot in front of the lander:
The lander collects scientific data about its environment, which is believed to have been formed by volcanic processes relatively late in the moon’s geological history, about 1.2 billion years ago.
Chang’e-5’s science suite includes ground penetrating radar as well as a spectrometer. But its main task is to get the youngest lunar regolite samples ever collected safely back to Earth. The mission schedule requires that a maximum of 2 kilograms of material be stored in a rocket-powered take-off vehicle that sits on top of the lander.
Even as the Chang’e-5 lander documents its surroundings, Twitter users are passing on images documenting how the lander does its job. Here’s a selection, starting with a panorama of the landing site:
The Chang’e-5 take-off vehicle will detonate on December 3 and then meet with the orbiter that put the lander into orbit and bided its time for the past few days. Although China previously sent two robotic landers to the moon in 2013 and 2019, it never attempted to resurrect a probe from the lunar surface. The maneuvers from here thus represent uncharted territory for the Chinese space program.
After the explosion, the mission plan calls for the canister containing the lunar samples to be transferred from the take-off vehicle to a reentry capsule attached to the orbiter. A few days later, the orbiter will fire its thrusters, leave lunar orbit and make the day-long journey back to Earth.
If all goes well, the re-entry capsule will be deposited as the orbiter flies past Earth in mid-December. The capsule would make a parachute-assisted landing in Inner Mongolia, and the samples in it would be carefully collected for research in Chinese laboratories.
This would be the first return of fresh samples from the Moon since the Soviet robotic probe Luna 24 accomplished this feat in 1976. NASA’s Apollo missions to the moon brought back hundreds of pounds of moon rocks and Earth between 1969 and 1972, but none of that material was as geologically recent as the material Chang’e-5 is expected to return.
For that reason, NASA wants to have access to the scientific data resulting from the Chinese mission. “We hope everyone will benefit from studying this precious cargo that could advance the international scientific community,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said in a tweet after the moon landing of Chang’e-5.
NASA is gearing up for its own series of missions to the moon as part of its Artemis program, with a crewed moon landing set to take place as early as 2024. trip, NASA will announce the selection of several commercial companies that will collect and store lunar samples, and then transfer ownership of those samples to NASA.
Do you have a few hours? Watch this special report on the Chang’e-5 mission (with English translation) from the Chinese CGTN network:
Main image: Panorama of the Chang’e-5 lander’s area, with a landing leg in the foreground and a hill known as Louville Omega on the horizon. Credit: CNSA / CLEP via Thomas Appere on Twitter.