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Thursday, July 18, 2024

China’s far-side Moon probe begins journey back with samples

China says its lunar probe has successfully taken off from the far side of the moon to begin its journey back to Earth carrying the first-ever samples collected from that region.

State media says a module of the Chang’e-6 craft, named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology, successfully lifted off about 07:38 on Tuesday (23:38 GMT Monday) to begin the journey back.

The craft had landed on Sunday close to the moon’s south pole in a world-first feat celebrated by the international science community.

China is the only country to have landed on the far side of the moon, having also done so before in 2019.

The Chinese National Space Administration has called the mission an ”unprecedented feat in human lunar exploration”.

That side of the moon – which always faces away from Earth – is technically challenging to reach due to its rugged terrain and deep craters.

China’s mission aims to be the first to bring back rock and soil samples from the region, which scientists say could be very different from rock formations on the moon’s near side.

State media published videos from China’s space agency showing the unmanned robot craft sticking out a little arm and waving the Chinese flag after it collected the precious samples.

On Tuesday, Chinese state media outlets announced the module’s successful take-off, quoting the CNSA saying the probe’s ascender module had “lifted off from lunar surface.”

“The mission has withstood the test of high temperature on the far side of the moon,” the space agency said.

After taking off, the module then entered a “pre-set orbit around the moon”.

The entire probe is due to return in about three weeks’ time to a landing site in Inner Mongolia.

Scientists in China will be given the first chance to analyse the rocks, and later researchers around the world will be able to apply for the opportunity too.

Scientists are excited about what samples China could collect. The probe could extract some of the Moon’s oldest rocks from a huge crater on its South Pole.

The probe touched down in a gigantic crater known as the South Pole–Aitken basin on Sunday. The crater is one of the largest known in the solar system.

The landing was fraught with risks, because it is very difficult to communicate with spacecraft once they reach the far side of the Moon.

China’s space authorities described the operation as involving “many engineering innovations, high risks and great difficulty”.

The mission aimed to collect about 2kg (4.4lb) of material using a drill and a mechanical arm, according to the CNSA.

Experts had previously told the BBC there was the potential of new rocks.

“Everyone is very excited that we might get a look at these rocks no-one has ever seen before,” said Professor John Pernet-Fisher, who specialises in lunar geology at the University of Manchester.

He has previously analysed lunar rock brought back on the American Apollo mission and previous Chinese missions.

But he says the chance to analyse rock from a completely different area of the Moon could answer fundamental questions about how planets form.

The Moon’s South Pole is the next frontier in lunar missions – countries are keen to understand the region because there is a good chance it has ice.

Access to water would significantly boost the chances of successfully establishing a human base on the Moon for scientific research.

This is the second time China has launched a mission to collect samples from the Moon.

In 2020 Chang’e-5 brought back 1.7kg of material from an area called Oceanus Procellarum on the Moon’s near side.

In 2019, China became the first country to reach the far side with the landing of its Chang’e-4.

China is planning three more uncrewed missions this decade as it looks for water on the Moon and investigates setting up a permanent base there.

Beijing’s broader strategy aims to see a Chinese astronaut walk on the moon by around 2030.

The US also aims to put astronauts back on the moon, with Nasa aiming to launch its Artemis-3 mission in 2026.

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