China on Tuesday launched a spacecraft to collect and return samples from the moon. A Long March-5 rocket, carrying the Chang’e-5 spacecraft, blasted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the coast of southern island province of Hainan. It was the country’s first attempt to retrieve samples from an extraterrestrial body. China became the third country to put a person into orbit a generation ago and the first to land on the far side of the moon in 2019. Future ambitions include a permanent space station and putting people back on the moon more than 50 years after the U.S. did.
The Chang’e 5 mission, if successful, would be the first time moon rocks and debris are brought to Earth since a 1976 Soviet mission. The mission’s main task is to drill 2 meters (about 7 feet) into the moon’s surface and scoop up about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rocks and other debris. The lander will deposit them in an ascender. A return capsule will deliver them back to Earth, landing on the grasslands of the Inner Mongolia region in mid-December.
“Pulling off the Chang’e 5 mission would be an impressive feat for any nation,” said Florida-based expert Stephen Clark of the publication Spaceflight Now. China prides itself on arriving at this point largely through its own efforts, although Russia helped early on with astronaut training and China’s crewed Shenzhou space capsule is based on Russia’s Soyuz. Before the latest lunar mission lifted off before dawn Tuesday, a top program official maintained that China isn’t competing with anyone.
“China will set its development goals in the space industry based on its own considerations of science and engineering technology,” Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center at the China National Space Administration, told reporters hours before the Chang’e 5 mission was launched.