Ascender (left) departs orbiter/returner.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab


China’s Chang’e-5 mission performed an aerial ballet above the Moon, an uncrewed rendezvous and docking of spacecraft and transfer of collected samples in lunar orbit.

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

At 23:10 (Beijing Time) on December 3, the ascender of Chang’e-5 took off from the lunar surface with its cache of Moon samples.

At 05:42 (Beijing Time) on December 6, the ascender successfully rendezvoused and docked with the orbiter-returner combination on the lunar orbit, and at 06:12, the lunar samples were transferred to the returner of Chang’e-5.

Beyond expectations

“The transfer of lunar samples of the Chang’e-5,” said Ye Peijian, the chief director of Chang’e-5 program, “is what has never been done before in the world. The rendezvous and docking of the ascender and the combination of orbiter and returner is also the first time in the world. I think we have done a great job. Actually, it has been completed beyond my expectation,” Ye told China Central Television (CCTV).

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Yang Yuguang, Vice Chairman, Space Transportation Committee, said the orbiter and re-entry capsule combination has a mass about 2.3 tons while the ascender has a mass about 400 kilograms.

Engineers at China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (COSIC) developed techniques and technologies for the automated rendezvous and docking for Chang’e-5 mission.
Credit: COSIC via CGTN

Crash cushions

In a China Global Television Network (CGTN) story, engineers at China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (COSIC) detailed the technologies they developed for the Chang’e-5 mission: an accelerometer, crash cushions or dampers to reduce impact of docking, while microwave radar served as the eyes of the ascender-orbiter pair to “look” at each other.

COSIC specialists performed months of experiments and carried out 15 simulations to assure the radars would work as intended, even taking the interference of lunar dust into consideration.

Having completed its mission, the Chang’e-5’s ascender separated from the orbiter-sample return vehicle.

Returner spacecraft carries re-entry capsule and its cache of lunar samples.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

According to Gao Lei, a CNSA official, the orbiter-returner will orbit the Moon for about six to seven days. It will then enter an Earth-Moon transfer orbit, and experience another three to four days of flight before returning to Earth.

New videos

For new videos showcasing the lunar rendezvous and docking tasks, go to:

Chang’e-5 orbiter-sample return vehicle separates from ascender.

Chang’e-5 – rendezvous and docking explained. Li Gefei (researcher, Beijing Aerospace Control Center) explains the rendezvous maneuvers and Peng Jing (deputy chief designer of the Chang’e-5 probe) explains the docking process.

Docking, Separation of Chang’e-5 Modules Conquer Technical Difficulties: Experts

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