China: Chang’e-6 far side of the Moon probe begins journey back

Legend, The Chinese craft unfurled the country’s flag after completing its sampling mission – the first time a country has flown a flag on the far side of the Moon.

  • Author, Frances Mao
  • Role, BBC News

China says its lunar probe has successfully lifted off from the far side of the Moon to begin its journey back to Earth, carrying the first samples ever collected from the region.

According to state media, the Chang’e-6 craft’s collection module took off around 7:38 a.m. Tuesday (23:38 GMT Monday) to begin the return journey.

On Sunday, the robot landed in a giant crater near the Moon’s south pole, a world first celebrated by the international scientific community.

China is the only country to have landed on the far side of the Moon, having already done so in 2019.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) described the mission’s landing and takeoff as an “unprecedented feat in human lunar exploration.”

The far or “dark” side of the Moon – which faces Earth – is technically difficult to reach due to its distance and difficult terrain consisting of giant, deep craters and few flat surfaces.

Space officials had to use a satellite to direct and maintain communications with the Chang’e-6 spacecraft.

China aims to be the first country to bring back samples of rocks and soil from the far side of the Moon, which scientists say could be very different from rock formations on the far side.

State media published videos from China’s space agency showing the Chang’e 6 spacecraft extending a small arm and waving the Chinese flag after collecting the precious samples.

This is China’s sixth mission to the Moon, named after the lunar goddess Chang’e in Chinese mythology.

Mission successful so far

The CNSA announced the sampling findings on Tuesday, saying the craft had “withstood the high temperature test on the far side of the Moon” and was now beginning its return.

Its ascendant module “successfully lifted off from the lunar surface” on Tuesday with samples in a metal vacuum container.

After liftoff, the module then entered a “predefined orbit around the moon.” The container will be transferred to a re-entry capsule which is expected to return to Earth and land in the deserts of Inner Mongolia around June 25.

Chang’e-6 had spent two days collecting rocks and soil, using a mechanical arm and a drill, to collect approximately 2 kg (4.4 lb) of material.

It is based in the South Pole-Aitken basin, a gigantic crater located on the far side of the Moon and one of the largest known in the solar system.

Directing the craft there carried many risks because it is very difficult to communicate with spacecraft once they reach the far side of the Moon.

Chinese space authorities described the operation as involving “many technical innovations, high risks and great difficulties.”

Video caption, Video shows Chinese probe landing on far side of the Moon

Scientists are excited about samples that could potentially come from some of the oldest rocks on the Moon.

The Chinese will have the first chance to analyze the rocks, and later, researchers around the world can also apply for this opportunity.

“Everyone is very excited that we can look at these rocks that no one has ever seen before,” Professor John Pernet-Fisher, a specialist in lunar geology at the University of Manchester, said last week. , at the BBC.

He said the ability to analyze rocks from a completely different area of ​​the Moon could answer fundamental questions about planet formation.

The Moon’s South Pole is the next frontier for lunar missions – countries are keen to understand the region because there’s a good chance it contains ice.

Access to water would greatly increase the chances of successfully establishing a human base on the Moon for scientific research purposes.

This is the second Chinese mission to collect samples from the Moon, but it is the first to extract them from the far side.

In 2020, its Chang’e-5 spacecraft brought back 1.7 kg of material from an area called Oceanus Procellarum on the near side of the Moon.

And the previous year, China had become the first country to reach the far side of the Moon with the landing of its Chang’e-4.

China plans three more uncrewed missions this decade to search for water on the Moon and establish a permanent base there. The country already has its own space station known as Tiangong or Heavenly Palace.

Beijing’s broader strategy aims to see a Chinese astronaut walk on the Moon by around 2030.

The United States also aims to return astronauts to the Moon, with NASA aiming to launch its Artemis-3 mission in 2026.

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