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China launches moon mission, seeking to be first country in decades to collect lunar rocks

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/23/2020 Siobhán O'Grady
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China launched a spacecraft without a crew aboard toward a previously unexplored part of the moon Tuesday in a bid to bring back material that could help scientists better understand the satellite and planets beyond Earth.

Only the United States and the Soviet Union have successfully brought lunar material back to Earth, in missions launched several decades ago.

Chang’e-5 launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province Tuesday. The mission is named for the Chinese goddess of the moon.

The Long March-5 launch rocket carrying the Chang’e-5’s four modules — the lander, the ascent vehicle, the service capsule and the return capsule — began its fueling process Monday, Chinese state media reported.

a person in a blue shirt: A patch for the China Lunar Exploration Program is displayed on the uniform of a worker at the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Nov. 23, 2020. © Mark Schiefelbein/AP A patch for the China Lunar Exploration Program is displayed on the uniform of a worker at the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Nov. 23, 2020.

The lander is scheduled to touch down in an area called Oceanus Procellarum and stay on the moon for one lunar daylight period — the equivalent of around two weeks on Earth.

Once there, it will attempt to dig about seven feet into the ground, then transfer the collected material to the ascender. According to NASA, the ascender will then dock with the service capsule, at which point the samples will be transferred to the return capsule. That capsule will then return to Earth, where it is expected to land in Inner Mongolia early next month. The mission’s goal is to collect about 4.5 pounds of material for research.

Jack Singal, an associate professor of physics at the University of Richmond, said that the mission, if successful, will allow scientists to directly date the rocks and volcanic activity from the collection site. Then calibrating the age to crater density, he said, could set the stage to “give us a better handle on dating rocks on the rest of the surface of the moon and other rocky bodies,” including Mercury and Mars.

[Another front in the tensions between the U.S. and China: Space]

The endeavor is the latest in China’s ambitious plans to expand its research in space, another rivalrous aspect of the U.S.-China relationship.

In July, China launched its Tianwen-1 mission, marking the country’s first attempt to land a rover on Mars. NASA launched a Mars mission, called Perseverance, the next week. The United Arab Emirates also launched an orbiter to Mars that month.

In January 2019, China became the first country to successfully land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. On that mission, called Chang’e-4, the craft landed in the Von Kármán crater, in the South Pole-Aitken basin. The Chinese National Space Administration said the landing “marked a new chapter in the human race’s lunar and space exploration.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called that landing “a first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment.”

China’s mission comes as NASA is pushing, under its Artemis program, to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. The Trump administration had moved up NASA’s timeline from 2028 to 2024, saying it needed to move with a sense of urgency.

NASA is hoping to create a permanent presence on and around the moon by building a space station it calls Gateway that would stay in lunar orbit and be used as a way station for astronauts and cargo.

It seems unlikely, however, that NASA would be able to meet the White House’s ambitious schedule. And while it appears that under the incoming Biden administration, NASA would maintain the Artemis program, the schedule would more closely adhere to the original 2028 date.

In the meantime, NASA is seeking to send a series of scientific missions to the lunar surface, including a rover that would hunt for water on the moon’s south pole by 2023.

China has dramatically accelerated its space missions in recent years, after first launching an astronaut into space in 2003, decades after American astronauts’ 1969 moon landing.

The latest mission, Singal said, is “an appropriate-scale mission for an emerging space power.”

The proximity of the moon, he added, means that if successful, China can “get some results and a triumph quickly.”

Christian Davenport contributed to this report.

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that a lunar day lasts the equivalent of about two weeks on Earth. That is the length of the lunar daytime, but a full lunar day lasts about four weeks.

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