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China launches space mission to collect first rocks from the moon in 40 years



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hina has launched an ambitious mission to bring back material from the moon’s surface for the first time in more than 40 years.

The undertaking could boost human understanding of the moon and of the solar system more generally.

Chang’e 5 – named after the Chinese moon goddess – is the country’s boldest lunar mission yet.

If successful, it would be a major advance for China’s space programme.

Experts have said it could pave the way for bringing samples back from Mars or even a crewed lunar mission.

The four modules of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft blasted off on top of a massive Long March-5Y rocket from the Wenchang launch centre along the coast of Hainan.

Minutes after liftoff, the spacecraft separated from the rocket’s first and second stages and slipped into Earth-moon transfer orbit.

SpaceX crew capsule test flight – in pictures

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a demo Crew Dragon spacecraft lifts off on Saturday, March 2

AP

The rocket lifts off

REUTERS

The SpaceX team watches as the SpaceX Crew Dragon docks with the International Space Station

AP

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk (L), with NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Doug Hurley, Bob Behnken, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins during a tour before the launch

AFP/Getty Images

A dummy (L) named Ripley onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard

AFP/Getty Images

CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques taking a look inside the SpaceX Dragon capsule

EPA

The Dragon as it approaches the International Space Station

EPA

The uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, the first Commercial Crew vehicle to visit the International Space Station (ISS), pictured with its nose cone open revealing its docking mechanism while approaching the station’s Harmony module

EPA

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station

REUTERS

The Dragon hatch closed after docking autonomously to the orbiting laboratory

EPA

The capsule undocks from the Space Station on Friday

AP

SpaceX’s new crew capsule undocks from the International Space Station

AP

The space capsule takes off after undocking from the ISS

AP

The capsule undocked and was headed toward an old-fashioned splashdown

AP

Spacecraft typically take three days to reach the moon.

The mission’s key task is to drill two metres beneath the moon’s surface and scoop up about 2kg of rocks and other debris to be brought back to Earth, according to Nasa.

That would offer the first opportunity for scientists to study newly obtained lunar material since the American and Russian missions of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Chang’e 5 lander’s time on the moon is scheduled to be short.

It can only stay one lunar daytime, or about 14 Earth days, because it lacks the radioisotope heating units to withstand the moon’s freezing nights.

The lander will dig for materials with its drill and robotic arm and transfer them to what is called an ascender, which will lift off from the moon and dock with the service capsule.

The materials will then be moved to the return capsule to be hauled back to Earth.

The mission is among China’s boldest since it first put a man in space in 2003, becoming only the third nation to do so after the US and Russia.

While many of China’s crewed space flight achievements reproduce those of other countries from years past, the China National Space Administration is moving into new territory.

Chang’e 4 – which made the first soft landing on the moon’s relatively unexplored far side almost two years ago – is collecting full measurements of radiation exposure from the lunar surface, information vital for any country that plans to send astronauts to the moon.

Related

China in July became one of three countries to have launched a mission to Mars, with an orbiter and a rover that will search for signs of water on the red planet.

Officials say the spacecraft Tianwen 1 is on course to arrive at Mars around February.

China has increasingly engaged with foreign countries on missions, and the European Space Agency will be providing important ground station information for Chang’e 5.