WENCHANG – China launched an ambitious mission on Tuesday to bring back rocks and debris from the moon’s surface for the first time in more than 40 years — an undertaking that could boost human understanding of the moon and of the solar system more generally.
Chang’e 5 — named for the Chinese moon goddess — is the country’s boldest lunar mission yet. If successful, it would be a major advance for China’s space program, and some experts say it could pave the way for bringing samples back from Mars or even a crewed lunar mission.
The four modules of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft blasted off at just after 4:30 a.m. Tuesday (2030 GMT Monday, 3:30 p.m. EST Monday) atop a massive Long March-5Y rocket from the Wenchang launch center along the coast of the southern island province of Hainan.
Minutes after liftoff, the spacecraft separated from the rocket’s first and second stages and slipped into Earth-moon transfer orbit. About an hour later, Chang’e 5 opened its solar panels to provide its independent power source.
Spacecraft typically take three days to reach the moon.
The launch was carried live by national broadcaster CCTV which then switched to computer animation to show its progress into outer space.
The mission’s key task is to drill 2 meters (almost 7 feet) beneath the moon’s surface and scoop up about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rocks and other debris to be brought back to Earth, according to NASA. That would offer the first opportunity for scientists to study newly obtained lunar material since the American and Russian missions of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Chang’e 5 lander’s time on the moon is scheduled to be short and sweet. It can only stay one lunar daytime, or about 14 Earth days, because it lacks the radioisotope heating units to withstand the moon’s freezing nights.