China’s Chang’e 5 Lunar samples return mission

Chang’e 5 is part of the Chang’e lunar exploration programme, which is run by the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA). The series of missions, named after a Chinese moon goddess, intends to gradually improve their technical capabilities, establishing the foundation for future human landings. The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) attempted to send a robotic spacecraft to the moon in order to collect samples and return them to Earth for scientific research with the Chang’e 5 lunar mission. Following the United States and the Soviet Union, China became the third country to return samples from the Moon. (More about the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program here.)

(More about China artificial moon).

Preparations and the launch of Chang’e 5

On October 23, 2014, the CNSA launched the Chang’e 5 T-1 probe, an experimental robotic probe, before launching the Chang’e 5 probe. This was done in order to conduct atmospheric re-entry experiments on the Chang’e 5 mission capsule design. Chang’e 5-T1’s return capsule, dubbed Xiaofei. It used a “skip” re-entry procedure, with the returning capsule slamming into Earth’s atmosphere at over 25,000 mph and safely landing parachuting onto a pre-selected landing area in north China’s Inner Mongolia Region. China successfully replicated its skip re-entry technique in the main Chang’e 5 mission as well.

The Chang’e 5 probe was launched by the Long March 5 launch vehicle from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on Hainan Island at 20:30 UTC on November 23, 2020. Chang’e-5 entered Lunar orbit on November 24, 2020, and remained there until the lander separated from the orbiter on November 29, 2020. The probe’s total weight was 18,100 pounds (8,200 kilogrammes), and it was made up of four modules, two of which stayed in lunar orbit.

(More on China’s Long March series rockets here.)

Landing of the Chang’e 5 and sample collection

Chang’e 5’s Lander/Ascender arrived on the Moon on December 1, 2020. The Chang’e 5 landing location was chosen in the Northern Oceanus Procellarum, near Mons Rümker, a massive volcanic complex in the northwest lunar near side. Some of the youngest mare basalts on the Moon, with high titanium, thorium, and olivine abundances, have never been sampled by any mission, including Apollo and Luna.

Chang’e 5 quickly set to work after landing, using its scoop arm to collect samples from the moon’s surface. The lander has successfully gathered 2 kg of lunar material, some of which was extracted using a drill from depths of up to 2 metres. Because the spacecraft is solar-powered, it had to complete all of its tasks before the sun set on Mons Rümker. (Because one day on the moon lasts around 29 Earth days, lunar places have two weeks of uninterrupted sunlight followed by two weeks of darkness.) Chang’e 5 placed a small Chinese flag weighing 12 gms on the lunar surface during its stay. It was the country’s first cloth flag erected on the moon. Chinese flags had been painted on the exterior of the spacecraft in previous Chang’e flights.

Sample return mission of the Chang’e 5

Chang’e 5 deposited its samples in the ascent vehicle on December 3, barely two days after landing, and it launched from the moon’s surface back to lunar orbit. On December 5, the module connected with an orbiter, making it the first totally robotic docking around the moon in history. The lunar samples were transferred to the orbiter’s return capsule, which will remain in orbit for nearly a week before returning to Earth. The nearly 300 kilogramme return capsule made a ballistic skip re-entry on December 16, 2020, bouncing off the atmosphere over the Arabian Sea before re-entering. The capsule landed on the grasslands of Siziwang Banner in the Ulanqab area of south central Inner Mongolia, holding roughly 2 kg of drilled and scooped lunar material.

On March 15, 2021, the Chang’e 5 orbiter was successfully grabbed by Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point, making it the first Chinese spacecraft to orbit Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange point. Mission control performed two orbital movements and two trajectory correction manoeuvres throughout the 88-day voyage to L1. On September 9, 2021, it completed an extended mission that included a lunar flyby..

Future of China’s Lunar mission

The CLEP (China Lunar Exploration Program) was set up with the aim to put humans on the moon, and set up a pseudo-permanent base on the Lunar surface or at least in the Lunar orbit, for extensive study and also to facilitate further space exploration beyond the Moon, further into the solar system, i.e., to Mars. The CLEP’s mandate was planned out to be done in 4 separate phases:-

  • Phase 1Orbital missions to reach the Lunar orbit and successfully launch viable orbiters – Chang’e 1 and 2 were part of phase 1
  • Phase 2 – Soft landing and rover exploration – The Chang’e 3 & 4 carried landers and China’s first Lunar rovers Yutu and Yutu-2 to the Lunar surface. The Yutu-2 is still in operation.
  • Phase 3 – Sample return mission – The Chang’e 5 was China’s primary sample return mission, with Chang’e 5 T1 being its experimental probe, and the yet unlaunched Chang’e 6 as its backup.
  • Phase 4 or Final Phase – Lunar robotic research station – Through international cooperation, China aims to establish this permanent research station near the Moon’s south pole, through the Chang’e 7 reconnaissance and exploration mission and Chang’e 8  with in-site resource utilization and 3D printing experimental technology to test build the lunar research station.

Through all these missions, China aims to lead successful crewed missions to the Moon by 2030s, and possible build a research outpost near the Lunar south pole, with international cooperation.

(More on China’s white paper on its plans for the future here.)

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