by Douglas Messier
Chinese media report that the Chang’e-5 spacecraft landed on the moon on Tuesday as China attempts to become only the third nation to return soil samples from Earth’s closest celestial neighbor.
Increasing the drama, state television suspended its live coverage of the mission just as Chang’e-5 began its descent to the lunar surface. Coverage later resumed with news that the landing had been successful.
The lander will spend several days collecting at least 2 kg (4.4 lb) of soil from its landing location on Oceanus Procellarum in the northwest region of the moon’s near side.
After the soil is collected, an ascender vehicle will lift off from the moon and begin the voyage back to Earth. The vehicle’s departure could take place on Thursday.
The ascent vehicle will make an automated rendezvous and docking with Chang’e-5’s orbiter, where it will transfer the soil into a sample return capsule. The orbiter will return to Earth where it will release the capsule for entry into the Earth’s atmosphere for recovery.
If the mission is successful, China will join the United States and the Soviet Union as the only nations to ever return samples from the lunar surface.
NASA’s Apollo manned mission returned 382 kg (842 lb) of moon rocks during six missions from 1969 to 1972. The Soviet Union returned 301 grams (10.6 oz) of lunar samples during three automated missions conducted in 1970, 1972 and 1976.
China is now three for three in lunar landings. The Chang’e-3 mission delivered a rover to the moon’s near side in 2013. The Chang’e-4 rover became the first vehicle to explore the far side beginning in January 2019.