China on Tuesday launched a historic mission that aims to bring back rocks and debris from the surface of the Moon for the first time in more than four decades that could potentially increase humanity’s understanding of the Earth’s natural satellite and the solar system.
Named after the Chinese goddess, the mission, Chang’e 5, is considered to be the Asian country’s most daring space venture in history. If it is successful, the mission will give China a major breakthrough in its space program. Some experts also believe it could pave the way to gathering materials back from Mars or another crewed lunar mission.
The Chang’e 5 spacecraft’s four modules blasted off at around 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday on top of the Wenchang launch center’s Long March-5Y located on the southern island province of Hainan.
The first and second stages of the rocket separated from the main body a few minutes after liftoff. The vessel continued to slip into the Earth-moon transfer orbit, and after about an hour, the craft operated its solar panels to generate its own power source. Generally, spacecraft take three days of travel to reach the Moon.
Initially, the state-media broadcasted the event live via CCTV but later switched to computer animation once it reached higher altitudes going into space.
The mission’s main objective is to successfully drill two meters into the Moon’s surface and gather about two kilograms of rock and debris. Personnel would then bring back the elements back to Earth to be studied. The acquisition of the Moon’s pieces would allow scientists to closely analyze lunar materials since the 1960s and 1970s.
The Chang’e 5’s time on the Moon is scheduled to be short and is only meant to be a gathering mission. The team and the spacecraft would only stay a maximum of one lunar daytime or the equivalent of about 14 days on Earth. This is due to the vessel lacking sufficient radioisotope heating units to protect itself and its personnel from the freezing nights of the Moon.
The lander is equipped with a drill and robotic arm that would allow it to dig for materials such as rocks and store them into an ascender. The machine would then carry the findings off of the Moon’s surface and dock with the service capsule. On their way back, the team would haul the return capsule back to Earth.
A space expert at the U.S. Naval War College, Joan Johnson-Freese, said that Chang’e 5’s complex technical machinery is a feat of engineering with its four components. She said, “China is showing itself capable of developing and successfully carrying out sustained high-tech programs, important for regional influence and potentially global partnerships.”
An astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Jonathan McDowell, said that while the lunar mission is a huge feat, China already has experience landing on the Moon with its Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 missions. Additionally, the country showed in a 2014 test mission that the Chang’e 5 could travel safely back to Earth, re-enter the atmosphere, and land a capsule without damage, the San Francisco Gate reported.
The space expert said that the only thing that China has to do now is to bring back samples of the Moon back to Earth for studies. McDowell said, “As a result of this, I’m pretty optimistic that China can pull this off.”
Freese-Johnson said that China works slowly, gaining favor and building itself up for long-term goals that it could use for several other missions. She added that the country’s authoritarian system makes democracy a difficult issue to address.
The U.S. has recently spent an active time criticizing China for its actions and responses to several local and global issues. American politicians have closely observed Beijing’s successes and efforts. Analysts doubt that cooperation between the two countries would result from newfound achievements in the space program.