China successfully launches its 1st spacecraft to moon

China successfully launches its first spacecraft to moon to collect samples, return to earth

It is China's first attempt to retrieve materials from an extra-terrestrial body which is expected to last more than 20 days

A Long March-5 rocket carrying the Chang'e 5 lunar mission lifts off at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province. Credit: AP Photo

China on Tuesday successfully launched its maiden unmanned spacecraft to collect samples from the lunar surface and return to earth, which space scientists here say is the Chinese space programme’s most complex operation ever.

It is China's first attempt to retrieve materials from an extra-terrestrial body which is expected to last more than 20 days.

The Chang'e-5 lunar probe was successfully launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in the southern island province of Hainan, state-run CGTN reported. The spacecraft was launched by a Long March-5 rocket at 4.30 am Beijing Time.

Chang'e-5 is one of the most complicated and challenging missions in China's aerospace history, as well as the world's first moon-sample mission in more than 40 years.

The US sent astronauts to the moon to collect samples. In the Soviet Union's unmanned lunar sampling missions, the spacecraft took off from the moon and returned to Earth directly.

The mission faces new technical challenges and much could go wrong, Chinese space scientists said.

“It is the Chinese space programme’s most complex mission ever,” Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Centre of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) told the official media.

Also read: China's 'space dream': A Long March to the moon

The 8-tonne spacecraft has four independent but interactive components. This includes one to stay in lunar orbit as a docking station, one to go down to the moon’s surface and drill for samples, one to take the material back to the dock station and another to bring the samples back to Earth.

Explaining why China chose to do what has been accomplished by the US and Soviet Union much earlier, Pei was quoted by the state-run Xinhua news agency as saying that China chose a complicated technological approach including unmanned rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit, and could bring back more samples and lay a technological foundation for manned lunar missions.

A major space power, China launched its first Mars mission ‘Tianwen-1' on July 23 this year. The Mars spacecraft which included an orbiter, lander and rover is on its way to the red planet.

The Chang'e-5 will help promote China's science and technology development and lay an important foundation for China's future manned lunar landing and deep space exploration, Pei said.

"Analysis of the lunar samples shows that contents within the soil and rocks could be turned into water and oxygen, which will be useful in supporting the operation of the Moon base and serve as supplementary fuel for lunar landing vehicles," Pang Zhihao, a Beijing-based space expert, told Global Times.

More importantly, scientists have found in the lunar samples the ideal material for nuclear fusion, and enough of it to meet human's energy needs for about 10,000 years, Pang added.

China’s future moon missions will explore the possibility of building an international lunar research base, the report said.

"To build a research base on the Moon, we first need to figure out what it is made of, by analysing the soil composition and geological structure, and then making use of the raw materials at hand on the Moon for our own exploration purposes," Song Zhongping, an aerospace observer and TV commentator said.

After it enters the lunar orbit, the lander-ascender combination will separate from the orbiter-returner combination.

While the orbiter-returner orbits about 200 km above the lunar surface, the lander-ascender will touch down on the northwest region of Oceanus Procellarum, also known as the Ocean of Storms, on the near side of the moon in early December, the Xinhua report said.

The landing site is chosen because the region has a young geological age, younger than the sampling areas of the United States and the Soviet Union 40 years ago. This region has never been sampled. The new samples will be of great scientific value, Chinese experts said.

"Domestic and overseas scientists will all have a chance to get the lunar samples to be brought back by Chang'e-5 for research," Pei added. 

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