China brings Moon samples to Earth for the first time in 44 years

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For the first time in more than four decades, humanity has managed to recover lunar rocks. This Wednesday, a capsule loaded with earth and lunar gravel landed in the Mongolian desert, putting the finishing touch to the successful Chinese mission Chang’e 5. The last such delivery was carried out by the now-defunct Soviet Union, which returned around 170 grams of material in 1976. However, the Chinese capsule’s load should be much higher, as well as more special: about 2 kilogramsof “young” moon rocks.

The mission launched on November 23 and reached lunar orbit five days later. Two of the four modules (the lander and an ascent vehicle), landed near Mons Rümker, a volcanic mountain in the northwest region of the visible face of the Moon, within the so-called Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of storms”) on December 1. The lander, which was powered by solar energy, was equipped with cameras, a ground-penetrating radar and an imaging spectrometer to measure its surroundings.

But his most important job was collecting samples, both from the surface and as material up to two meters below it. And, according to the news so far, he succeeded. On December 3, this material was lifted aboard the ascent vehicle, which was reunited with the other two Chang’e 5 modules, an orbiter and a return capsule. On December 12, the journey home began, culminating in the landing of the capsule in Mongolia.

Young rocks

With the apparent success of Chang’e 5 (mission teams still need to be inspected and returned samples have to be evaluated), China has become the third nation to bring lunar material to Earth. The other two, the Soviet Union and the United States, had managed to contribute about 382 kg of lunar rocks and soil. However, these new samples are somewhat different: the rocks in the Mons Rümker region are believed to have formed approximately barely 1,200 million years, almost 2,000 million years later than those recovered by the Apollo program.

«All the volcanic rocks collected by the NASA in the 1970s they were over 3,000 million years old. And all the young impact craters, whose ages have been determined from the analysis of samples, are below 1 billion years, “he says in a release Bradley Jolliff, planetary scientist at the University of Washington. So the Chang’e 5 samples will fill a critical gap. These samples will be a treasure! ‘

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The Chang’e program, the «Chinese Apollo»

Chang’e 5 was the latest mission in the Chang’e robotic lunar exploration program, named after a moon goddess in Chinese mythology. Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2 raised lunar orbiters in 2007 and 2010, respectively, and Chang’e 3 put a landing-rover duo on the lunar near side in December 2013.

The next was the Chang’e 5 T1, which launched a prototype return capsule around the Moon in October 2014 to help prepare for the landing that occurred today. Then came Chang’e 4, which in January 2019 made the first soft landing on the mysterious hidden side of our satellite, achieving a historic feat.

The Chang’e 4 lander and rover continue to perform well, as does the Chang’e 3 lander (The Chang’e 3 rover died after 31 months of work on the lunar surface). Chang’e 6 it was built as a kind of “backup” in case Chang’e 5 failed. But Chang’e 7 and the following in phase 4 will take a new leap forward: preparing the facilities for future landings with astronauts. China does not want to miss the new space race.

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