Chinese capsule returns to Earth with moon rocks

The successful mission is the latest breakthrough in China’s increasingly ambitious space program, which includes a robotic mission to Mars and a space station.

BEIJING, China – A Chinese moon capsule returned to Earth on Thursday with the first fresh samples of rock and debris from the moon in more than 40 years.

The Chang’e 5 probe capsule landed just before 2 a.m. (6 p.m. GMT Wednesday) in Siziwang district of Inner Mongolia region, state media reported.

The capsule earlier separated from its orbiter module and rebounded on Earth’s atmosphere to reduce its speed before crossing and floating on the ground on parachutes.

Two of the Chang’e 5’s four modules landed on the moon on December 1 and collected about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of samples by picking them up from the surface and drilling 2 meters (about 6 feet) into the lunar crust. The samples were placed in a sealed container which was returned to the return module by an ascent vehicle.

The successful mission was the latest breakthrough in China’s increasingly ambitious space program that includes a robotic mission to Mars and plans for a permanent space station in orbit.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in a statement read to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, called it a major achievement that marked a big step forward for the Chinese space industry, state news agency Xinhua said.

He expressed hope that the mission participants will continue to help make China a major space power and national rejuvenation, the agency reported.

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Recovery teams had prepared helicopters and all-terrain vehicles to pick up signals from the lunar spacecraft and locate it in the darkness surrounding the vast snow-capped region of far north China, long used as a site of landing for the Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft.

The return of the spacecraft marked the first time scientists obtained new moon rock samples from the former Soviet Union’s Luna 24 robot probe in 1976.

The newly collected rocks are believed to be billions of years younger than those previously obtained by the United States and the former Soviet Union, offering new insights into the history of the moon and other bodies in the system. solar. They originate from a part of the moon known as Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms, near a site called Mons Rumker which would have been volcanic in ancient times.

As with the 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of lunar samples brought back by American astronauts from 1969 to 1972, they will be analyzed for age and composition and should be shared with other countries.

The age of the samples will help fill a gap in knowledge about the history of the moon between approximately 1 billion and three billion years, Brad Jolliff, director of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at the University of Washington in the American city of St. Louis, wrote in an email. They could also provide clues to the availability of economically useful resources on the moon, such as concentrated hydrogen and oxygen, Jolliff said.

“These samples will be a treasure! Jolliff wrote. “I take my hat off to our Chinese colleagues for successfully completing a very difficult mission; the science that emerges from the analysis of returned samples will be a legacy that will last for many years and, hopefully, involve the international community of scientists. “

Chang’e 5 took off from a launch base in southern China’s Hainan Island Province on November 23 and appears to have completed its highly technically sophisticated mission without a hitch.

It was China’s third successful moon landing, but the only one to lift off the moon again. Its predecessor, Chang’e 4, became the first probe to land on the unexplored far side of the moon and continues to return data on conditions that could affect a future extended stay of humans on the moon.

The moon has received special attention from the Chinese space program, which has announced plans to land humans there and possibly build a permanent base there. No timeline or other details were announced.

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

In 2003, China became the third country to send an astronaut into orbit after the Soviet Union and the United States, and its space program proceeded more cautiously than the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s, which was marked by deaths and launch failures. By taking gradual steps, China appears on the path to building a program capable of sustaining steady progress.

“They read and admired the Apollo (US Lunar Program) playbook, but also learned the format,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, Chinese space program expert at the US Naval War College. “Better to go slow and build an infrastructure for the future than to do it quickly and end up with little to keep you going. “

The latest flight includes a collaboration with the European Space Agency, which helps monitor the mission. Amid concerns about the secrecy of the Chinese space program and close military ties, the United States is banning cooperation between NASA and CNSA unless Congress gives its approval. This has kept China from participating in the International Space Station, which it has sought to compensate with the launch of an experimental space station and plans to complete a permanent orbiting outpost within the next two years.

Troy M. Hoffman