China’s Chang’e-6 moon mission returns to Earth with historic samples on the other side

China’s Chang’e-6 lunar module returned to Earth on Tuesday, successfully completing its historic mission to collect the first-ever samples from the far side of the moon, marking a major step forward for the country’s ambitious space program.

According to state broadcaster CCTV, the reentry module “landed successfully” in a designated zone in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region just after 2 p.m. local time. A CCTV livestream showed the module landing via parachute to applause in the mission control room.

“The Chang’e-6 lunar exploration mission was a great success,” said Zhang Kejian, head of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), from the control room.

According to CCTV, a search team located the module minutes after landing. The livestream showed a worker carrying out checks on the module, which was located on grassland next to a Chinese flag.

The successful mission is a major milestone in China’s “eternal dream” – as expressed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping – to establish the country as a dominant space power. The mission comes as a number of countries, including the United States, are also ramping up their own lunar flight programs. exploration programs.

In a congratulatory message Tuesday, Xi praised the mission as “a new milestone in building a strong country in space, and in science and technology.”

Beijing plans to send astronauts to the moon by 2030 and build a research base at the moon’s south pole – an area believed to contain water ice, where the US also hopes to establish a base.

The Chang’e-6 probe is expected to have returned to Earth with up to 2 kilograms of lunar dust and rocks from the far side of the moon, which will be analyzed by researchers in China before being opened to access by international scientists, according to reports the CNSA.

Earlier in June, the Chang'e-6 probe was seen raising a Chinese flag with a robotic arm on the far side of the moon.  - Chang'e 6 lunar rover/Weibo

Earlier in June, the Chang’e-6 probe was seen raising a Chinese flag with a robotic arm on the far side of the moon. – Chang’e 6 lunar rover/Weibo

The results of the sample analysis could help scientists look back at the evolution of the moon, Earth and solar system – while also supporting China’s goal of using resources on the moon to continue its research there, say experts.

The samples were collected using a drill and a robotic arm from a location in the vast South Pole-Aitken Basin, an impact crater that formed about 4 billion years ago on the far side of the moon and is never visible to the public. soil.

A climber then lifted them from the lunar surface and transferred them into lunar orbit to a reentry vehicle, which then traveled back to Earth after breaking away from its lunar orbit.

The progress of Chang’e-6 – China’s most technically complex mission to date – has been followed with great interest in the country since its launch on May 3.

Earlier this month, images of the lunar lander bearing the Chinese flag and appearing to have drilled the character “zhong” – short for China – onto the moon’s surface went viral on Chinese social media.

The return of the lunar module on Tuesday also comes after suspected debris from a separate Chinese missile crashed to the ground in southwestern China on Saturday, leaving a trail of bright yellow smoke and sending villagers fleeing, according to videos posted on Chinese social media and sent to CNN by a local witness.

‘Honey’ from the other side

The far side of the moon has been a point of fascination for scientists since they first looked at it in grainy, black-and-white images captured in 1959 by the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 spacecraft — and realized how different it was the side that faced the Earth.

Absent were the lunar marias, or large, dark plains of cooled lava that cover much of the moon’s near side. Instead, the other side appeared to show a record of impacts – covered in craters of varying sizes and ages.

Decades later, and some five years after the Chang’e-4 mission made China the first and only country to complete a soft landing on the other side, scientists from China and around the world have high hopes for the information that may be collected. from the samples.

“It’s a gold mine … a treasure chest,” said James Head, a professor of planetary geosciences at Brown University, who, along with European scientists, worked with Chinese scientists to analyze samples from the Chang’e-5 mission that sampled the nearby side returned . “International scientists are absolutely excited about the mission,” he said.

Head pointed to the destruction of many clues to evolutionary history due to shifting plate tectonics and erosion that obscured the planet’s first billions of years, including the period when life emerged.

“The moon is really the keystone to understanding that because its surface has no plate tectonics, it’s actually a frozen record of what it was like in our early solar system,” he said, adding that understanding the moon’s composition isn’t can only help us understand the past, but future exploration of the solar system.

While the focus of the Chang’e-6 mission is on these broader scientific questions, experts say analyzing the composition and physical properties of the samples could also help advance efforts to learn how to use resources on the moon for future lunar and space exploration. .

“The (Chang’e-6) mission aims to answer specific scientific questions, but the lunar soils collected during the mission could support future resource use,” said Yuqi Qian, a planetary geologist at the University of Hong Kong.

Lunar soil could be used for 3D printing to produce bricks for building research bases on the moon, while some scientists were already working on finding more economical and practical technologies to extract gases such as Helium-3, oxygen and hydrogen from the soil to get. which could support further lunar exploration, he said.

Once they receive the samples, Chinese scientists are expected to share data and conduct joint research with international partners before Beijing later opens the samples to access by international teams, according to statements from CNSA officials.

International teams had to wait about three years before they could access samples from the Chang’e-5 mission, but some of the earliest published research on those samples came from teams of Chinese and international scientists.

‘Race’ to the moon

Chang’e-6 – the sixth of eight planned missions in the Chang’e series – is widely seen as a major step forward for China’s goal of landing astronauts on the moon in the coming years.

“Each step in the sample return mission process is exactly what you need to do to land humans on the moon and return,” Head said. “It should not be lost on anyone that while this is on one hand a science mission, the command and control aspects are exactly what you need for human exploration of the moon and for things like returning Mars samples.”

China’s ambitions to send astronauts to the moon come as US targets launch a crewed ‘Artemis’ mission as early as 2026 – which would be America’s first such attempt in more than 50 years.

NASA chief Bill Nelson appeared to point to China’s pace as a driving force behind U.S. progress, telling lawmakers in April that the two countries were “in effect… in a race.”

“My concern is that they (go to the south pole) first and then say, ‘This is our area, stay out of it,’ because the south pole of the moon is an important part… We think there is water there and if there is water, and then there’s rocket fuel,” Nelson said.

China has sought to allay concerns about its ambitions, reiterating its position that space exploration “should benefit all humanity” and actively recruiting country partners for its planned international lunar research station.

China and the US are not alone in eyeing the national prestige, potential scientific benefits, access to resources and further deep space exploration that successful lunar missions could bring.

Last year, India landed its first spacecraft on the moon, while Russia’s first lunar mission in decades failed when the Luna 25 probe crashed on the lunar surface.

In January, Japan became the fifth country to land a spacecraft on the moon, although the Moon Sniper lander suffered power problems due to an incorrect landing angle. The following month, IM-1, a NASA-funded mission designed by the Texas-based private company Intuitive Machines, landed close to the moon’s south pole.

China will launch its Chang’e-7 mission to the moon’s south polar region in 2026, while Chang’e-8 will be launched in 2028 to conduct tests aimed at utilizing lunar resources in preparation for the lunar research station. The Chinese space authorities said this earlier this year.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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