The first lunar sample in 44 years is on its way home

Humanity is about to get its first (willingly received!) moon rocks in 44 years thanks to China’s Chang’e 5 probe.

Yes, it’s true – we’re spoilt with all the space rocks we’ve been getting recently. Chang’e 5 is China’s first sample return mission, and the first mission to retrieve lunar samples since the Soviet Luna 24 probe in 1976.

The mission has been a brief one, with Chang’e 5 launching on the 23rd of November attached to a Long March 5 rocket, landing on the moon on the 1st of December before lingering for 48 hours and collecting an approximate two kilograms of samples. The spacecraft is solar powered and wouldn’t survive the cold harsh nights of the moon, so collecting samples had to be done within a single lunar day – equal to 14 Earth days.

Collecting the samples was completed via the classic robot scoop, as well as drilling into the surface. They were taken from an unexplored area of the moon called Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms. This area is full of volcanically young land – potentially less than 2 billion years old, rather than the 3 or more billion years of the explored areas on the moon.

Before the ascender vehicle took off containing the samples, the lander vehicle unfurled a Chinese flag on the moon. The ascender then took off containing the samples to reunite with the probe. The re-capsule containing the samples is expected to land in Inner Mongolia in mid-December.

If everything goes according to plan then China will become the third country to have retrieved samples from the moon, behind only the US and the Soviet Union in the 60s and 70s.

Once fully analysed on Earth, scientists will be able to better deduct the age of the volcanic rocks. This is important work that could assist with the way analyse craters, helping us find the age of areas on planets like Mars and Mercury. Not only that, but the samples will also help us understand how the moon originally formed and how it’s changed over time.

This is all part of a grander mission spanning four phases. Phase 1 started in 2007 with Chang’e 1, and Chang’e 5 is the final part of phase 3. Queqiao 1 and Chang’e 4 missions in phase 2 are still ongoing, phase 4 will take place over the course of the next decade.

The current plan is to survey and collect samples from the lunar south pole to test the viability of research stations on the moon.

Featured image credit: CNSA

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