Surface of the Moon with Earth in the background

Chinese spacecraft delivers Moon rocks back to Earth

Image credit: Dreamstime

A Chinese lunar capsule has returned to Earth with the first fresh samples of rock and debris gathered from the Moon in more than 40 years.

The capsule of the Chang’e 5 probe landed successfully in the Siziwang district of the Inner Mongolia region shorted after 2am local time, Chinese state media reported.

The capsule had earlier separated from its orbiter module and performed a bounce off the Earth’s atmosphere to reduce its speed before passing through and floating to the ground on parachutes.

Two of the Chang’e 5’s four modules set down on the Moon on 1 December and collected approximately 2kg of samples, both by scooping some from the surface and also by drilling two metres down into the Moon’s crust. The samples were deposited in a sealed container that was carried back to the return module by an ascent vehicle.

The successful mission was the latest breakthrough for China’s increasingly ambitious space programme, which also includes a robotic mission to Mars and plans for a permanent orbiting space station.

Recovery crews had prepared helicopters and off-road vehicles to home in on signals emitted by the lunar spacecraft to locate it in the darkness shrouding the vast snow-covered region in China’s far north, which has long been used as a landing site for China’s Shenzhou-crewed spaceships.

The spacecraft’s return marked the first time scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rocks since the former Soviet Union’s Luna 24 robot probe returned home in 1976.

China's Moon rock and debris samples are thought to be billions of years younger than those obtained by the US and former Soviet Union, offering new insights into the history of the Moon and other bodies in the solar system.They come from a part of the Moon known as the Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms, near a site called the Mons Rumker that was believed to have been volcanic in ancient times.

As with the 382kg of lunar samples brought back by US astronauts from Nasa missions between 1969 to 1972, China's samples will be analysed for age and composition and likely shared with other countries.

Chang’e 5 blasted off from a launch base in China’s southern island province of Hainan on 23 November.

Flying a Chinese flag, the moon lander stopped functioning soon after it was used as a launching pad for the ascender, which was ejected from the orbiter after transferring the samples and came to rest on the Moon’s surface. It marked China’s third successful lunar landing, but the only one to lift off again from the surface of the Moon.

The spacecraft’s predecessor, Chang’e 4, was the first probe to land on the Moon’s seldom-explored far side and it continues to send back data on conditions that could affect a future extended stay by humans on the surface.

The Moon has been a particular focus of the Chinese space programme, which has said it plans to land humans there and possibly construct a permanent base. No timeline or other details have been announced.

China has also joined the effort to explore Mars. In July, it launched the Tianwen 1 probe, which carried a lander and a robot rover to search for water.

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 US.

The latest flight included collaboration with the European Space Agency, which helped monitor the mission. Amid concerns over the Chinese space programme’s secrecy and close military connections, the US forbids cooperation between Nasa and the CNSA unless Congress gives its approval.

That has prevented China from taking part in the International Space Station, something it has sought to compensate for with the launching of an experimental space station.

One theory about the possible origins of the Moon was put forward by researchers in early December, just as the Chang’e 5 spacecraft began its return to Earth with its bounty of lunar samples.

Earlier this week, other interstellar material was safely returned to Earth, with soil and gas samples collected by the Japanese probe Hayabusa2 confirmed to have originated from the Ryugu asteroid.

A growing number of nations are investing heavily in space research, as agencies look beyond Earth at the options for one possible future for mankind. The UK government confirmed this week that work will soon begin on a state-of-the-art spacecraft that, for the first time, will track down and map comets in 3D.

Meanwhile, researchers in the US have used the ancient Japanese art of paper folding - origami - to possibly solve a key challenge for travel into outer space – how to store and move fuel to rocket engines.

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