Wenchang Chinese technicians are making final preparations on Monday for a mission to bring back material from the surface of the Moon for the first time in nearly half a century – a mission that could enhance human understanding of the moon and the solar system in general.
Chang’e 5 – named after the Chinese moon goddess – is the country’s most ambitious lunar trek to date. If successful, it would be a major advance for the Chinese space program, and some experts say it could pave the way for returning samples from Mars or even a manned lunar mission.
The four units of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft are expected to be sent into space on Tuesday aboard the massive Long March-5 rocket from the Wenchang Launch Center along the coast of southern Hainan Island Province, according to NASA’s description of the mission.
Only the top-secret China National Space Administration said the launch is scheduled for late November, although the Lunar Exploration Project said in a statement on Monday that the success in orbiting, landing and returning “will lay a solid foundation for future missions.”
The main mission of the mission is to dig 2 meters (about 7 feet) below the surface of the moon and collect about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rock and other debris to bring it back to Earth, according to NASA. This would provide scientists with the first opportunity to study lunar materials newly acquired since the US and Russian missions in the 1960s and 1970s.
After making the three-day flight from Earth, Chang’e 5’s moon landing time is set to be short and sweet. The moon can last one day, or about 14 Earth days, because it lacks radioisotope heating units to withstand frozen moon nights.
The landing craft will drill for materials using a drill and robotic arm and transport it to a so-called ascent, which will launch from the moon and attach to the “service capsule”. The materials will then be transported to the return capsule for the return trip to Earth.
Joan Johnson-Frieze, a space expert at the US Naval War College, said the technical sophistication of Chang’e 5, with its four components, makes it “remarkable in many ways.”
“China is demonstrating itself capable of successfully developing and implementing sustainable high-tech programs, which are important for regional influence and potential global partnerships,” she said.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the ability to collect samples from space in particular increases its value. He said other countries planning to recover material from asteroids or even Mars might look forward to trying China.
While the mission is “really difficult”, McDowell said that China has already landed twice on the surface of the moon with the Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 missions, and through the 2014 Chang’e 5 test mission it showed that it can return to Earth, Re-enter and capsule landed. All that remains is to show the possibility of collecting samples and taking off again from the moon.
“As a result, I am very optimistic that China can succeed in that,” he said.
The mission is among China’s boldest since it first sent a man into space in 2003, becoming the third country to do so after the United States and Russia.
While many of the achievements of Chinese manned spaceflight, including building an experimental space station and conducting a space march, reproduce those of other countries from past years, CNSA is now moving to new territory.
Chang’e 4 – which was the first soft landing on the far, relatively undiscovered side of the moon in nearly two years, is currently collecting complete measurements of radiation exposure from the moon’s surface, which is vital information for any country planning to send astronauts to the moon.
In July, China became one of three countries to launch a mission to Mars, in the case of China an orbiter and rover that will search for water signs on the red planet. CNSA says the Tianwen 1 spacecraft is on its way to Mars in about February.
China is increasingly involved in missions with foreign countries, and the European Space Agency will provide important information on the Chang’e 5 ground station.
However, US law still prevents most collaborations with NASA, with the exception of China, from partnering with the International Space Station. This has pushed China to start working on its own space station and launch its own programs, which have put it in constant competition with Japan and India, among Asian countries that seek new achievements in space.
The Chinese space program has progressed cautiously, with relatively few setbacks in recent years. The Long March-5 missile, nicknamed “Fat 5” due to its massive shape, failed in a previous launch attempt, but has since performed without any malfunctions, including the launch of the Chang’e 4.
“China is working very gradually, developing the building blocks for the long-term use of a variety of tasks,” said Freese Johnson. The authoritarian one-party system in China also allows for “the prolonged political will that is often difficult in democracies.”
Experts say that while the United States follows China’s successes closely, it is unlikely to cooperate with China in space amid political suspicions, intense military rivalry and accusations of China’s technology theft.
“It is unlikely that any change in US policy on space cooperation will receive much government interest in the near future,” Johnson-Frieze said.
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