Lunar mission is latest milestone in China's space ambitions

24 Novembre, 2020, 15:32 | Auteur: Therese Cote

In addition to rocks, Chang'e-5 also hopes to collect dust and other materials that will help scientists learn more about the Moon's history. Chinese technicians were making final preparations Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, to launch a Long March-5 rocket carrying a mission to bring back material from the lunar surface in a potentially major advance for the country's space program.

The lander will dig for materials with its drill and robotic arm and transfer them to what's called an ascender, which will lift off from the moon and dock with the service capsule.

Mons Rümker is a volcanic formation and therefore "younger" than regions of the Moon observed in prior missions, meaning the Chang'e-5 landing site is "extremely wisely picked", University of Münster geologist Harald Hiesinger told Nature.

While China has sent prior missions to the moon - including Chang'e-4, which became the first craft to soft land on the dark side of the Moon in 2019 - returning the samples is more technically complicated than those and will require the CNSA to demonstrate they have mastered a number of engineering problems ranging from heat control to Lunar launching.

The China National Space Administration's mission to bring chunks of the Moon back to Earth for the first time in decades will kick off this week, with the Chang'e-5 spacecraft slated to launch on today from Wenchang Space Launch Centre on Hainan Island. It will then use a rocket to rejoin the re-entry module in orbit and hand off the samples, with the re-entry module to then carry them back to Earth. The new samples will be of great scientific value, Chinese experts said. All that's left is to show it can collect samples and take off again from the moon.

Speaking to astronauts aboard the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft by video link in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, "the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger".

"We will determine when to implement a manned lunar landing based on scientific needs and technical and economic conditions", he said. "I think future exploration activities on the moon are most likely to be carried out in a human-machine combination".

The aim of the programme is for China to acquire the basic technologies of unmanned lunar exploration with limited investment, Pei said. In July, it successfully sent China's first Mars probe Tianwen-1 into the Earth-Mars transfer orbit.

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Chang'e 4 - which made the first soft landing on the moon's relatively unexplored far side nearly two years ago - is now collecting full measurements of radiation exposure from the lunar surface, information vital for any country that plans to send astronauts to the moon.

The Chang'e-5 mission is a big test of China's aerospace technology, and China is expected to pass it with flying colors.

The spacecraft is made up of an orbiter, a lander, an ascender and a returner, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

China's space program has progressed cautiously, with relatively few setbacks in recent years. China's one-party authoritarian system also allows for "prolonged political will that is often hard in democracies", she said.

While the US has followed China's successes closely, it's unlikely to expand cooperation with China in space amid political suspicions, a sharpening military rivalry and accusations of Chinese theft of technology, experts say.

The latest Chang'e-5 probe is among a slew of ambitious targets set by Beijing, which include creating a super-powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those NASA and private rocket firm SpaceX can handle, a lunar base, a permanently crewed space station, and a Mars rover.

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