Chinese probe orbiting moon with Earth-bound samples

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In this China National Space Administration (CNSA) photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a simulated image of the ascender of Chang'e-5 spacecraft blasting off from the lunar surface at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) in Beijing on Dec. 3, 2020. The Chinese lunar probe lifted off from the moon Thursday night with a cargo of lunar samples on the first stage of its return to Earth, state media reported. (China National Space Administration/Xinhua via AP)

BEIJING – A Chinese probe was orbiting the moon on Monday in preparation for the returning of samples of the lunar surface to Earth for the first time in almost 45 years.

The ascent module of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft transferred a container with 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of samples after docking with the robot spacecraft on Sunday and was then cut free.

The orbiter and reentry vehicle will circle the moon for another week awaiting a narrow time window to make the roughly three-day, 383,000-kilometer (238,000-mile) journey back to Earth. It will first “bounce" off the Earth's atmosphere to slow its speed before the reentry vehicle separates and floats down on parachutes to land on the vast steppes of Inner Mongolia, where China's Shenzhou crewed spaceships have also made their landings.

If the mission succeeds, it will make China the third country after the United States and former Soviet Union to bring moon rocks to Earth. They will be the first fresh samples of the lunar surface obtained by scientists since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 probe in 1976.

The Chang’e 5 ascent stage blasted off from the moon’s surface on Friday, leaving behind the lander module flying the Chinese flag, according to the China National Space Agency, which also released a photo taken by the orbiter showing it approaching for its rendezvous with the ascender, a sliver of the Earth seen in the background.

That marked the first time China had succeeded in lifting off a spacecraft from a celestial body, while no country had previously achieved the tricky feat of executing a robotic docking in lunar orbit. Controllers on Earth had to deal with distance and time lag while precisely maneuvering a clamp into position with almost no room for error.

The 23-day mission has been front page news in state media for days, paired with reports that China has officially lifted all of its citizens out of the most grinding form of poverty. Along with being a propaganda coup for the ruling Communist Party, the dual stories illustrate the vast economic and technological advances China has made since it became just the third country in history to launch a person into space in 2003.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying praised the “courage to explore, overcome difficulties and pay hard efforts" of those who made the mission possible.