The Chinese National Space Agency has just passed one of the key milestones for its latest mission to the Moon. The Chang’e 5 has successfully landed near Mons Rümker in Oceanus Procellarum (the Ocean of Storms), the vast dark-colored region on the Moon's near side.
The mission aims to bring back lunar samples to study on Earth. Chang’e 5 is expected to collect about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of lunar material, some from the surface and the rest from a depth of 2 meters (6.6 feet), with the drilling scheduled to begin a few hours after landing.
Once the sample is collected, it will be stored in the ascent vehicle and launched back into lunar orbit. There it will rendezvous with the orbiter and the sample will be transferred into a sample-return capsule for delivery to Earth. The journey back home will take 4.5 days.
The capsule is expected to employ the skip reentry technique, previously employed in the Apollo mission as well as the 2014 Chang'e 5-T1 mission which tested this exact scenario. The capsule will act like a pebble thrown at the surface of a lake. It will skim the atmosphere once before falling down to Earth. For the Chang’e 5 sample, this is expected to happen on December 16-17 landing somewhere in Mongolia.
The lander is designed to work for a single lunar day, which lasts 14 of our Earthly counterparts. The lunar night is extremely cold, with temperatures falling to -130°C (-208°F). Previous missions like Chang’e 4 have been equipped with a radioisotope heater unit to survive the night, so Chang’e 5 will have to work efficiently.
If the whole mission is a success, this will be the first time in 44 years that lunar samples have been collected from the Moon. The last time was the Russian Luna 24 mission in 1976. Chang’e 5 will be followed up by Chang’e 6, another sample return mission. These two are part of the third phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program.
The first phase saw the spacecraft Chang’e 1 and 2 entering lunar orbit. The second phase was landing and roving, achieved by Chang’e 3 and 4. The fourth phase will see the construction of a robotic research station near the lunar south pole. The goal is to achieve a crewed lunar landing in the 2030s with a possible outpost there.
Like all previous Chinese lunar missions, Chang’e 5 is named after Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the Moon.