Enlarge /. China's heavy-duty vehicle, the Long March 5, is launched on the Chang & # 39; e 5 mission.
On Monday, China successfully sent the latest Chang & # 39; e missions on the way to the moon. Chang'e 5 is the most ambitious yet and, if successful, will make China the third country to return samples from the lunar surface (after the Soviet Union and the US). The mission is quite complex and has a lot of potential for error. However, it also happens on a short schedule, so within three weeks we have a good idea of how things are going.
There and back again
China's Chang & # 39; e program, named after a goddess of the moon, began in 2007 with the launch of the Chang & # 39; e 1 orbiter. As time went on, the missions became more and more complex. In Chang & # 39; e 3, a rover was deployed on the lunar surface, and Chang & # 39; e 4 made history with the first landing on the other side of the moon. The missions have already provided exciting scientific data and many photos of previously unexplored areas of the moon.
Now China is planning to get something back from the moon that cannot be reduced to a series of ones and zeros. As with two previous missions, once Chang & # 39; e 5 reaches lunar orbit, it will bring a lander to the surface. This time, however, the lander is accompanied by a sample return vehicle. After you've loaded up to two kilograms of material with a drill and shovel, the sample return vehicle lifts off the lunar surface and meets the vehicle that brought it to the moon.
Once the sample return vehicle and orbiter are reunited, the samples are transferred to a re-entry capsule and the orbiter returns to Earth. The re-entry capsule will then separate from the rest of the hardware and the samples will set up in the Inner Mongolia region.
Overall, the mission is impressively complex. It requires a soft landing, successful rover deployment, sample collection and storage, a take-off from the moon, a rendezvous in orbit, and a safe return to Earth – all from a distance. That means several steps for something to go wrong. The mission ends when things don't go right. If handled successfully, this will provide yet another indication that China has become a major player in solar system exploration.
A tight schedule
In any case, we will know soon. China's National Space Agency expects the entire mission to take 23 days, although the rover has imaging capabilities and remains active after the samples are collected.
If successful, the lunar samples will be the first to be returned to Earth since the 1970s. The Chinese National Space Agency already has guidelines for the scientific use of samples that successfully return to our planet and plans to give access to the international community.
However, after yesterday's successful launch, all of the hardware is on its way to the moon. Landing is not expected for several days, and the sample is lifted from the lunar surface two days later.