Fresh samples from the Moon delivered by China’s Chang’e-5 return capsule.
Credit: XinhuaVideo/Inside Outer Space screengrab

China has scored a major milestone in space exploration, robotically hauling back samples of the Moon to Earth. It is a feat that has not been duplicated by humans or automated means since 1976.

The Chang’e-5 sample return capsule skyrocketed into the Siziwang Banner in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on December 16 with a search and retrieval team at the ready, fighting bitter cold, snow, and nighttime conditions in order to locate the capsule of lunar collectibles. The capsule landed at 17:59 UTC (December 17, 01:59 local time).

Return capsule parachutes into Siziwang Banner in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
Credit: CCTV/China National Space Administration (CNSA)/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Upon the capsule’s touchdown, ground crews began securing the location, with other teams assessing the vehicle’s condition and then manipulate the lander and transport it to a protected location.

Chang’e-5’s step-by-step mission to the Moon and back also bolsters that country’s plan to place Chinese astronauts on Earth’s celestial neighbor – as well as bring back specimens from Mars.

Re-entry capsule performed slow-down dips within Earth’s atmosphere.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Fresh samples

Carrying the world’s freshest lunar samples in over 40 years, China’s Chang’e-5 lunar probe’s returner craft parachuted down on Earth early Thursday (Beijing time), marking a successful conclusion of the country’s three-step lunar exploration program of orbiting and landing, and bringing back samples.

“What a great achievement and a fantastic advance for lunar science,” said lunar researcher, Clive Neal at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Photo taking during surface sampling.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Explained James Head, a Moon expert at Brown University’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences in Providence, Rhode Island: “This is an amazing accomplishment by our Chinese colleagues!”

Head said that there are so many outstanding questions derived from the last almost 50 years of analysis of existing lunar samples. Chang’e-5 landed in a never-before visited critical area, he said.

“This is a huge step forward in lunar exploration and understanding of the Moon and planets, including Earth,” Head said “This is also a great ‘rehearsal’ Mars sample return by NASA/ESA and China,” he told Inside Outer Space. “Congratulations to our Chinese colleagues!” 

Box indicates Chang’e 5 lander on the basaltic plains of Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”) on December 2, 2020. The lander is the bright spot in the center of the outline. The areas around the lander has been brightened due to the descent engine plume impingement on the surface (similar to what has been observed at other landing sites).
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Milestone-making mission

The Chang’e-5 mission was comprised of a lander, an ascender, an orbiter and a returner, and was hurled toward the Moon on November 24. Its lander-ascender combination successfully planted itself on the near side of the Moon — north of Mons Rümker (a younger volcanic complex) in Oceanus Procellarum, also known as the Ocean of Storms, on December 1, and then collected roughly 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of samples from both the lunar surface and beneath.

The milestone-making mission achieved several firsts for China, including the country’s first lunar sampling, the first liftoff from an extraterrestrial body, the first automated rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit and the first spacecraft carrying samples to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speed.

Go to these new videos from the landing site at:

https://youtu.be/Cw40pned8QU

Xinhua’s Yu Jia reports from the spacecraft’s landing site in Inner Mongolia at:

https://youtu.be/oErWOjnhvOw

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