China became the first country to implement automatic docking in lunar orbit

A Chinese probe was orbiting the moon on Monday in preparation for returning samples from the surface of the moon to Earth for the first time in nearly 45 years. Boarding unit Chang’e 5 spacecraft A 4.4lb container of samples was transported after docking with the robotic spacecraft on Sunday and then cut free of charge. The achievement made China the first country to implement robotic anchorage in lunar orbit.

The orbiter and return spacecraft will orbit the moon for another week, waiting for a narrow window of time to make the approximately three-day journey and 238,000 miles to Earth. It will first bounce off the Earth’s atmosphere to slow its speed before the return craft detaches and floats on parachutes to land on the vast steppes of Inner Mongolia, where Chinese manned spaceships from Shenzhou landed.

Chinese moon probe
This graphic simulation image provided by the China National Space Administration shows the orbiter group of China’s Chang’e-5 probe after detaching from the rooker, at the Beijing Space Control Center (BACC) in Beijing on Sunday, December 6, 2020.

/ AP

If the mission succeeds, it would make China the third country after the United States and the former Soviet Union to bring moon rocks to Earth. They will be the first new samples from the moon’s surface that scientists have obtained since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 probe in 1976.

Chang’e 5’s ascent stage took off from the moon’s surface on Friday, leaving the lander behind Flying the Chinese flag, According to the China National Space Agency. The agency has also released an image taken by the orbiter that shows it approaching its rendezvous, a part of Earth seen in the background.

A printed image of the Chinese national flag raised from the Chang'e-5 spacecraft
The national flag of China is shown raised from the Chang’e-5 spacecraft on the surface of the moon, in this posted image provided by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on December 4, 2020.


This was the first time that China had succeeded in ejecting a spacecraft from an astronomical body, while no country had previously achieved the difficult achievement of implementing automatic docking in the moon’s orbit. Controls on the ground had to handle distance and time delay while precisely maneuvering the clamp into position with virtually no room for error.

The 23-day mission was front page news in state media days ago, coupled with reports that China has officially pulled all of its citizens out of the most severe form of poverty. Besides being a propaganda coup for the ruling Communist Party, the twin stories illustrate the tremendous economic and technological progress China has made since it became the third country in history to launch a person into space in 2003.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying praised the “courage to explore, overcome difficulties and make serious efforts” for those who made the mission possible.

“The entire Chinese people are proud of the efforts and wisdom of Chinese researchers in the field of lunar exploration,” Hua told reporters at a press conference on Monday.

Flyer photo of the Chang'e-5 ascent
Rookie Chang’e-5 of the orbit and return group is seen in this handout photo provided by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on December 6, 2020.


In gradual, cautious steps, China is now entering the midst of a series of ambitious missions that include a probe en route to Mars and the development of a reusable space plane about which little information has been provided.

Future plans call for a human being returned to the moon after five decades of American astronauts, along with the possibility of a permanent lunar base, although no timeline has been provided. China is also building a permanent space station to start operation early in 2022.

The US opposition has prevented the military-backed secret Chinese program from participating in the International Space Station, although CNSA has been expanding its ties with other programs, including the European Space Agency, which helped guide Chang’e 5 in its mission.

Last week, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Director of Science, tweeted a A congratulatory message to China After the spacecraft landed on the surface of the moon.

Chang’e 5 landed on December 1 on a Sea of ​​Storms on the near side of the Moon, near a formation called Mons Rumker, an area believed to have been the site of ancient volcanic activity.

The rocks and other debris were obtained by drilling into the moon’s crust and cliffs directly from the surface. Thought to be perhaps billions of years younger than those brought back earlier, it might offer insights into the history of the moon as well as the history of other bodies in our solar system.

The Lunar Exploration Program has established laboratories dedicated to analyzing samples for age and composition. China is also expected to share part of it with other countries, as happened with hundreds of pounds of rocks, sand, dust, and other samples obtained by the United States and the former Soviet Union.

China is implementing a phased approach to its lunar program, launching a series of increasingly complex robotic spacecraft to develop and test the propulsion, guidance, navigation and landing systems needed for long-term exploration.

Chang’e 1 and 2 successfully reached lunar orbit in 2007 and 2010 respectively, followed by the lunar lander Chang’e 3 in 2013 and Chang’e 4, which landed on the far side of the moon in 2019. Chang’e ‘e5 is the first of two planned return missions and the largest ambitious Chinese satellite mission to date

Bill Harwood contributed to this report.

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