China Launches Lunar Sample Return Mission

China Launches Lunar Sample Return Mission

China’s Chang’e-5 lifted off at 3:30 pm EST today, its first attempt to return samples from the Moon.  If all goes according to plan, Chang’e-5 will bring its harvest back to Earth in mid-December and China will join the United States and Soviet Union/Russia as the only countries to return lunar samples. While many cheered the development, others found it a worrying sign of China challenging U.S. leadership in space.

With the time zone difference, the launch was November 24 at 4:30 am local time at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.  China’s CGTN provided live coverage.

Liftoff of China’s Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission from Hainan Island, China, November 23, 2020 EST (November 24 local time at the launch site). Screengrab from CGTN

China’s plan to launch Chang’e-5 has been known for many years and China space watchers were pretty sure the launch would take place today even though officially China said only it would be in late November. This is the first attempt by anyone to bring samples back from the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976.

The crews of the six U.S. Apollo missions that landed on the Moon between 1969 and 1972 returned 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of lunar rocks and soil. Three robotic Soviet probes, Luna 16, 20 and 24, collectively brought back 301 grams (10.6 ounces) between 1970 and 1976.  China’s goal for Chang’e-5 is 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of samples.

NASA congratulated China on today’s launch, but also wondered if China would share the samples with the international science community as both the United States and Soviet Union did.

NASA is not allowed to cooperate with China on a bilateral basis unless it gets approval from Congress first and follows a set of requirements. The so-called “Wolf Amendment” is named after former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) who once chaired the House Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and first put the restrictions into law. The provision is routinely included in the CJS bill each year, including the FY2021 version now awaiting final action (Sec. 526).  It is not a complete prohibition, but NASA must certify, after consulting with the FBI, that the activity poses no risk of technology transfer and does not involve knowing interactions with officials who have direct involvement in human rights violations.

China does have significant international space cooperation with other countries and the European Space Agency (ESA) is working with China on the Chang’e-5 mission, providing tracking support.

Chang’e-5 is the fifth in a series of Chinese lunar missions fulfilling a three-stage plan: orbit, land, and return. Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 were orbiters, Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4 are landers with associated rovers named Yutu-1 and Yutu-2.

Chang’e is China’s mythological goddess of the Moon and Yutu is her pet Jade Rabbit.

Change’-3 and Chang’e-4 are operational on the lunar surface right now.  Chang’e-4 set its own milestone for being the first lunar lander on the far side of the Moon, which always points away from Earth. (It is often mistakenly referred to as the dark side of the Moon.  In fact, the Moon’s surface has 14 days of sunlight and 14 days of darkness on all sides except at the poles where the Sun is always at the horizon.)

Because the far side of the Moon always faces away from Earth, a communications relay satellite is needed to send commands to and get information from Chang’e-4. China launched the Queqiao satellite in 2018 to serve that purpose.  It also launched a test satellite in 2014 to demonstrate technologies and the sample return trajectory for Chang’e-5. The test capsule landed in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the planned site for Chang’e-5’s return to Earth as well.

During a mission spanning about 20 days, Chang’e-5 will travel to the Moon and land on the near side at Oceanus Procellarum, the Ocean of Storms.  As shown in an animation tweeted by China’s Xinhua news agency, the lander will separate from the main spacecraft and descend to the surface. Using a robotic arm and a drill, approximately 2 kilograms of lunar rock and soil will be collected and placed into an ascent vehicle that will lift off from the lunar surface and rendezvous with the main spacecraft in lunar orbit.  The sample will be transferred to the main spacecraft, which will then head back towards Earth where the reentry capsule will detach and land at Siziwang Banner in Inner Mongolia.

The complex choreography is reminiscent of how Apollo crews returned from the Moon, although Chang’e-5 will do it all robotically. Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration told Xinhua that, indeed, Chang’e-5 is intended to lay the technological foundation for human missions.

The United States is the only country to land humans on the Moon so far and is pursuing the Artemis program to land “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon, both Americans, by 2024.  While many are skeptical it can be achieved by then, the overall goal of returning Americans to the lunar surface is supported on a bipartisan basis in Congress.  NASA’s FY2021 appropriations bill as passed by the House and approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee funds Artemis, if not at the level requested by the Trump Administration.

NASA is pushing forward not only on the technical front, but in setting norms of behavior for lunar activities through the Artemis Accords, a set of principles the United States is signing on a bilateral basis with countries that want to cooperate in the Artemis program.  Eight other countries have signed already (Australia, Canada, Japan, Italy, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates on October 13 and Ukraine last week).  China is not part of those discussions since NASA is not allowed to engage with China bilaterally.

Victoria Samson, Director of the Washington Office of the Secure World Foundation, told today that the Artemis Accords are a “great start” in setting out responsible, cooperative behavior, but if they do not incorporate countries like China “their efficacy may be limited. … There is still time to bring in all actors for these conversations.”

That may be a tall order since not only is the Wolf amendment still the law of the land, but House Republicans issued a “China Task Force Report” in September that painted China as a threat to U.S. leadership in space. Today, the top Republican on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), referenced that report and warned about Chang’e-5’s implications.

“The launch of Chang’e-5 is a significant step by China towards their goal of establishing a long-term presence on the Moon. The nation that leads in space will dictate the rules of the road for future technological development and exploration, and the influence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the CCP’s space program makes China a particularly irresponsible and dangerous candidate. Advancements by the CCP also jeopardize American international competitiveness in science and technology. We can no longer take America’s leadership in space for granted and must continue supporting the men and women of the American space program aspiring to launch crewed missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.” — Rep. Frank Lucas

While scientists eagerly await the chance to study more lunar samples, at least some policy-makers see today’s launch through a different lens.  Whether that will affect congressional willingness to fund Artemis or U.S. national security space programs remains to be seen.

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