China Launches Probe To Return Samples From the Far Side of the Moon

China Launches Probe To Return Samples From the Far Side of the Moon

China is hoping to achieve another lunar exploration first by landing a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon and bringing samples back to Earth. Chang’e-6, named for China’s mythological goddess of the Moon, launched from Hainan Island this morning and will return in about 53 days if all goes according to plan. The spacecraft also carries scientific experiments from European and Pakistani partners.

Chang’e-6 lifted off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center at 5:27 am Eastern Daylight Time today (09:27 UTC/ 5:27 pm Beijing Time) on a Long March 5 rocket.

The spacecraft will land within the South Pole Aitken Basin in the Apollo crater at 41-45°S, 150-158°W latitude. Using a robotic arm equipped with a scoop, drill, and sample chamber, it will collect about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of lunar material for return to Earth.

In the 1960s and 1970s, six U.S. Apollo crews returned 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of lunar material and three Soviet robotic spacecraft brought another 226 grams (0.5 pounds). China’s first sample return mission, Chang’e-5, added 1.73 kilograms (3.8 pounds) to the amount of material available on Earth for scientific analysis. All of those samples are from the near side of the Moon that’s visible from Earth.

This is the first attempt to retrieve samples from the far side that always faces away. Often mischaracterized as the “dark” side of the Moon — it gets the same amount of light and darkness as the near side — the far side is quite different geologically.

China made the world’s first robotic landing on the far side in January 2019 with the Chang’e-4 lander and its Yutu-2 rover, which are still operating. But scientists are eager to get samples back to Earth where they can be studied much more extensively in ground-based laboratories.

Since the far side always faces away from Earth, the only way to communicate with probes there is through a relay satellite in lunar orbit. The first, Queqiao (Magpie Bridge), was launched in 2018 to support Chang’e-4. An upgraded Queqiao-2 was launched in March 2024 for Chang’e-6 and future missions.

Chang’e-6 is carrying scientific instruments from several international partners: Detection of Outgassing RadoN (DORN) from France;  Negative Ions at the Lunar Surface (NILS) from Sweden and the European Space Agency; a laser retroreflector (INRRI) from Italy; and the ICUBE-Q cubesat from Pakistan.

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