A China National Space Administration spacecraft has touched down successfully on the Moon and started to collect its first rock samples, state media has reported.
The uncrewed mission aims to retrieve 2kg of lunar samples from a previously unvisited lava plain known as the ‘Ocean of Storms’. These samples could provide scientists with clues about the age and origins of the Moon, as well as providing knowledge about other bodies in the solar system.
The lander vehicle – one of several deployed by the probe – descended from an orbiter and touched down at 1500GMT on Tuesday, the space agency said. The probe then successfully unfolded solar panels to power itself.
The agency has released images of the scene at the landing site, which show the shadow of the vehicle.
The lander has been programmed to drill into the ground with a robotic arm; this process will take approximately two days, according to state broadcaster CCTV. It will then transfer the soil and rock samples to an ascender vehicle, which will lift off and dock with an orbiting module for return to Earth, landing in the Inner Mongolia region in mid-December.
“Chang’e has collected Moon samples,” the space agency said in a statement.
US and Russian space officials congratulated the China National Space Administration on the successful landing. Nasa science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen tweeted: “This is no easy task. When the samples collected on the Moon are returned to Earth, we hope everyone will benefit from being able to study this precious cargo that could advance the international science community.”
The samples are expected to be made available to scientists internationally although it remains unclear how much access Nasa will have, given tight US restrictions on cooperation with the Chinese government.
If the mission is successfully completed, it will make China only the third nation to have retrieved lunar samples after the US and Soviet Union. It will also mark the first time scientists have obtained fresh lunar rock samples since the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976.
Chang’e 5 is part of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (also known as the Chang’e Project, after the Chinese moon goddess), which uses a range of robotic spacecraft and other tools to study the Moon. China made its first lunar landing in 2013, and its most recent lunar probe touched down on the largely-unexplored far side of the Moon – the first space probe to do so – in January 2019. Chang’e 5’s landing marks China’s third successful lunar landing.
Chinese space agency officials have said that they hope to oversee crewed missions to the Moon in the future, in addition to further robotic ones. However, no timeline has been released.