The Chang’e 5 mission to the Moon was short but extremely successful. The Chinese probe has returned to Earth carrying 1.731 kilograms (3.816 pounds) of lunar material, the first sample return from the Moon in 44 years.
The sample landed in Mongolia on December 16 at 1:59 am local time. It came back to earth using the tried and tested skip reentry technique – just like the Apollo missions – where the probe bounced on the atmosphere once like a pebble on a pond before reentry.
The mission got to the lunar surface on December 1, landing near Mons Rümker in the vast basaltic plane (the darker parts of the near-side) of Oceanus Procellarum, the Ocean of Storms. As soon as it got onto the ground it started working on collecting samples from the surface and just below. It was packed in a capsule and sent back to orbit on December 3.
The ascension vehicle carried samples and rendezvoused with the orbital part of the mission, before coming back to Earth after a week in circum-lunar orbit. The success of the mission makes China the third nation to obtain lunar samples after the US and the (at the time) Soviet Union.
The samples collected will significantly expand our geological understanding of the Moon. The samples brought back from the Apollo program range from between 3.1 to 4.4 billion years old. The area where Chang’e 5 landed is much younger, possibly around 1.21 billion years old. Studying these samples will improve age estimation for lunar regions, as well as estimations on the ages of regions on other planets.
About three-quarters of the sample collected comes from the soil around the lander, with the remaining quarter obtained by drilling underground. The samples have been transferred to specialized labs for analysis, but it is expected that some of the incredible haul will be put on public display according to an official press statement. The goal is to inspire the next generation.
Chang’e 5 was designed to operate for a limited time as long as it stayed in sunlight. The Lunar night, which lasts 14 days, is extremely frigid and the lander was not equipped to withstand those incredibly low temperatures.
On the other side of the Moon, the mission predecessor Chang’e 4 – well equipped for the temperature difference between night and day – is continuing its mission.
China is expected to launch Chang’e 6, another sample return mission, in either 2023 or 2024. This mission is expected to land somewhere near the south pole of the Moon.