Chinese spacecraft off to far side of the Moon

The Chang'e-6 lunar probe mounted on the Long March-5 Y8 carrier rocket at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in south China's Hainan Province.

The Chang'e-6 lunar probe mounted on the Long March-5 Y8 carrier rocket at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in south China's Hainan Province. Photo: AAP

China has launched an uncrewed spacecraft on an almost two-month mission to retrieve rocks and soil from the far side of the moon – the first country to make such an ambitious attempt.

The Long March-5, China’s largest rocket, blasted off at 5.27pm Friday Beijing time (0927 GMT) from Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan with the more than eight metric ton Chang’e-6 probe.

Chang’e-6 is tasked with landing in the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the far side of the moon, which perpetually faces away from earth, after which it will retrieve and return samples.

The launch marks another milestone in China’s lunar and space exploration program.

“It is a bit of a mystery to us how China has been able to develop such an ambitious and successful program in such a short time,” said Pierre-Yves Meslin, a French researcher working on one of the scientific objectives of the Chang’e-6 mission.

In 2018, Chang’e-4 gave China its first unmanned moon landing, also on the far side. 

In 2020, Chang’e-5 marked the first time humans retrieved lunar samples in 44 years, and Chang’e-6 could make China the first country to retrieve samples from the moon’s “hidden” side.

The launch was attended by scientists, diplomats and space agency officials from France, Italy, Pakistan, and the European Space Agency, all of which have moon-studying payloads aboard Chang’e-6.

But no US organisations applied to get a payload spot, according to Ge Ping, deputy director of the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) Lunar Exploration and Space Program.

China is banned by US law from any collaboration with the US space agency, NASA.

“The far side of the moon has a mystique perhaps because we literally can’t see it,” said Neil Melville-Kenney, a technical officer at ESA working with Chinese researchers on one of the Chang’e-6 payloads.

“We have never seen it apart from with robotic probes or the very few number of humans that have been around the other side.”

After the probe separates from the rocket, it will take four to five days to reach the moon’s orbit. 

In early June a few weeks later, it will land.

Once on the moon, the probe will spend two days digging up 2kg of samples before returning to earth, where it is expected to land in Inner Mongolia.

The window for the probe to collect samples on the far side is 14 hours, compared to 21 hours for the near side.

The samples brought back by Chang’e-5 allowed Chinese scientists to uncover new details about the moon, including more accurately dating the period of volcanic activity on the moon, as well as a new mineral.

Ge said the scientific value of Chang’e-6 lay in the geological age of the South Pole-Aitken Basin, which his team estimated was about four billion years – much older than the samples previously brought back by the Soviet Union and the US, which were about three billion years old, as well as the two-billion-year-old samples from Chang’e-5.

Besides uncovering new information about the celestial body closest to earth, Chang’e-6 is part of a long-term project to build a permanent research station on the moon: the China and Russia-led International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

The construction of such a station would provide an outpost for China and its partners to pursue deep space exploration.


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