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China is Reaching for the Moon

Image credit CNSA

Chinese Lunar Exploration Program

The Chinese Lunar Exploration program has the brave goal to bring astronauts to the moon in the 2030s and eventually to build an outpost near the lunar south pole. The program includes 4 phases: 1. Reaching lunar orbit - already done by Change'1 in 2007 and Chang'e 2 in 2010. 2. Unmanned landing and driving on the moon surface - done by Chang'e 3 in 2013 and Chang'e 4 in 2019. 3. Collecting samples and sending them to the Earth - this is the task of the current Chang'e 5 and the future Change'6 missions. 4. Building a robotic research station near the Moon's south pole.

Chang'e 5

Chang'e 5 is an unmanned lunar probe, named after the Chinese goddess of the moon. It is by far China's largest and heaviest moon probe. The spacecraft is made up of an orbiter, a lander, an ascender and a returner. The estimated launch mass is 3,780 kg and will be launched by a Long March 5 rocket at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

The Mission

Once in the Moon's orbit, the lander and the ascender will separate from the orbiter and the returner and head for landing on  Mons Rümker in the Ocean of Storms. After touchdown two operations will start simultaneously: a robotic arm will collect stones and a drill will bore a hole to collect soil. Around 2 kilograms of stones and soil will be collected. Then they will be placed in a vacuum metal container inside the ascender. After this task is completed the ascender will bring the capsule to the re-entry module. It will transfer the samples to the module and then detach.

Image credit CNSA

The orbiter and the re-entry capsule will then leave the Moon orbit and return to the Earth's orbit, where the pair will break up and the re-entry capsule will head to the planned landing site in North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region. The whole mission is planned to take a bit less than a month.

Meanwhile the lander will continue operating on the moon surface - a panoramic camera will map the topography of the landing site, an infrared spectrometer will investigate the physical composition of stones and dirt around  and a soil measurement instrument will  analyze the  structure of the soil on beneath the surface of the drilling point. 

If successful, Chang'e 5 will be the first unmanned lunar sample collecting spacecraft returning  to the earth since 1976, when the Soviet Luna 24. China will become the third country after USA and the former Soviet Union that collected lunar samples. This will also be the first time China  retrieves extraterrestrial substance. The mission is a serious test for the Chinese space ambitions and will be an important milestone for the fast developing Chinese Space Program.

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