China’s Lunar Sample Return Capsule Successfully Recovered

China’s Lunar Sample Return Capsule Successfully Recovered

China’s Chang’e-5 lunar sample return capsule successfully landed in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region today (EST). Recovery teams quickly located the capsule on the cold, snowy ground at about 2:30 am local time December 17. It fulfills China’s goal of robotically collecting and returning samples from the Moon, its first such mission and the first to do so since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976. The last time the United States returned lunar samples was the 1972 Apollo 17 mission.

China released few details about the landing in advance, but provided live TV coverage of the recovery effort.  The goal was to collect 2 kilograms of material, but how much is in the capsule will not be known until it is transported to the National Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and opened in a special laboratory.

A member of the Chang’e-5 recovery team stands near the sample return capsule after landing in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of northern China. Screengrab from CGTN. December 16, 2020 EST.

Chang’e-5 is the third phase of China’s three-step robotic lunar program: orbit, land, and return.  Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 were orbiters, Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4 are landers, and this is the sample return.  Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4 are still operating on the lunar surface, Chang’e-3 on the near side and Chang’e-4 on the far side. Both have rovers, Yutu and Yutu-2.  Yutu stopped functioning soon after deployment, but Yutu-2 is still operational.

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

Chang’e-5 was launched on November 23 EST (November 24 in China).  As shown in an animation tweeted by China’s Xinhua space agency, Chang’e-5 used a complex procedure to accomplish its task that involved rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit not unlike how the United States conducted the Apollo missions.

Once in lunar orbit, the lander/ascent vehicle separated from the main spacecraft with its return capsule and descended to the surface. After landing, samples were collected using a drill and a scoop and placed into the ascent vehicle, which then lifted off, rendezvoused with the orbiter, and transferred the samples into the return capsule. It later was discarded and deliberately crashed into the lunar surface. The main spacecraft/return capsule then departed lunar orbit for the trip back to Earth. One major difference from Apollo is that only the small Chang’e-5 return capsule landed. The small capsule, 1 meter (3.3 feet) in diameter and 1 meter high, was ejected from the main spacecraft, which remains in space, so the size and mass of the vehicle that had to survive atmospheric entry was significantly less than Apollo and, of course, no one was aboard.

Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration, said at the time of launch that Chang’e-5 is intended to lay the technological foundation for future human missions.

That is quite a different level of effort, however. Not only do they need a human-rated spacecraft with a heat shield that can survive a lunar return, but a rocket to launch it. Chang’e-5 required China’s most capable launch vehicle, Long March 5, which is roughly equivalent to a U.S. Delta IV Heavy, but not close to the Saturn V that sent Apollo to the Moon or the Space Launch System in development for NASA’s current Artemis program.

Xu Yansong, Director for  International Cooperation of the China National Space Administration and Director-General of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, acknowledged that today. Interviewed on CGTN, he said human missions to the Moon are “exciting thoughts” but require a “bigger launch vehicle, more reasons, more resources.” Noting that the Chang’e-5 launch was delayed two years because of technical problems with the Long March 5, he said “the large launch vehicle, the Long March 9, could be the determination point. The size of your launch vehicle determines the size of your dreams.”

Still, China is the first country to land a spacecraft, Chang’e-4, on the far side of the Moon; to put a relay satellite, Queqiao, in orbit around the Moon to enable communications between Earth and Chang’e-4 (since there is no line-of-sight between them); and now to return samples from the Moon in 44 years.

Chang’e-6 is next in the series. It will land at the lunar South Pole, but Prof. Yang Yuguang of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation and Vice Chairman of the International Astronautical Federation’s Space Transportation Committee, said on CGTN today a decision on whether it will be on the near or far side of the Moon has not been made.

NASA’s Apollo crews brought back 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of lunar material and some of it was shared with the international scientific community. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, have expressed hope China will similarly share these samples.  Zurbuchen congratulated China on its success today.

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