Chinese lunar probe collects first rock samples after landing on Moon

In this image taken by camera aboard Chang'e 5 spacecraft provided by China National Space Administration, its shadow is refl
In this image taken by camera aboard Chang'e 5 spacecraft provided by China National Space Administration, its shadow is reflected on the surface of the moon during its landing process on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. The Chinese spacecraft landed on the moon Tuesday to bring back lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s, the government announced. (China National Space Administration via AP)

A Chinese spacecraft sent to return lunar rocks to Earth collected its first samples after landing on the Moon, the government announced, adding to a string of successes for Beijing’s increasingly ambitious space programme.

The Chang’e 5 probe touched down shortly after 1500 GMT on Tuesday after descending from an orbiter, the China National Space Administration said.

It released images of the barren scene at the landing site showing the lander’s shadow.

“Chang’e has collected Moon samples,” the agency said in a statement carried by the official Xinhua News Agency.

It said the probe had also successfully unfolded solar panels that will power it.

The probe, launched on November 24 from the tropical southern island of Hainan, is the latest venture by a Chinese space programme that sent its first astronaut into orbit in 2003, has a spacecraft en route to Mars and aims eventually to land a human on the Moon.

Plans call for the lander to spend about two days drilling into the lunar surface and collecting two kilograms (4.4lb) of rocks and debris.

A Long March-5 rocket carrying the Chang’e 5 lunar mission lifts off at the Wenchang Space Launch Centre (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
A Long March-5 rocket carrying the Chang’e 5 lunar mission lifts off at the Wenchang Space Launch Centre (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

The top stage of the probe will be launched back into lunar orbit to transfer the samples to a capsule for return to Earth, where it is to land in China’s northern grasslands in mid-December.

If it succeeds, it will be the first time scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rocks since a Soviet probe in the 1970s.

Those samples are expected to be made available to scientists from other nations, although its unclear how much access Nasa will have, given tight US government restrictions on space co-operation with China.

From the rocks and debris, scientists hope to learn more about the Moon, including its precise age, as well as increased knowledge about other bodies in our solar system.

Collecting samples, including from asteroids, is an increasing focus of many space programmes and China’s mastery of the technology once again places it among the leading nations operating in space.

American and Russian space officials congratulated the Chinese programme.

“Congratulations to China on the successful landing of Chang’e 5.

“This is no easy task,” wrote Nasa’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, on Twitter.

“When the samples collected on the Moon are returned to Earth, we hope everyone will benefit from being able to study this precious cargo that could advance the international science community.”

The most recent return of lunar rocks to Earth was carried out in 1976 by Luna 24, a Soviet robot probe.

US astronauts brought back 382kg (842lb) of lunar samples from 1969 to 1972, some of which is still being analysed and experimented on.

The Chang’e 5 flight is China’s third successful lunar landing.

Its predecessor, Chang’e 4, was the first probe to land on the Moon’s little-explored far side.

Chinese space programme officials have said they envision future crewed missions along with robotic ones, including possibly a permanent research base.

A Long March-5 rocket before launch (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
A Long March-5 rocket before launch (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

No timeline or other details have been announced.

The latest flight includes collaboration with the European Space Agency, which is helping to monitor the mission.

China’s space programme has proceeded more cautiously than the US-Soviet space race of the 1960s, which was marked by fatalities and launch failures.

In 2003, China became the third country to send an astronaut into orbit on its own after the Soviet Union and the United States.

It also launched a crewed space station.

China, along with neighbours Japan and India, also has joined the growing race to explore Mars.

The Tianwen 1 probe launched in July is on its way to the red planet carrying a lander and a rover to search for water.

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