The state space agency reported that a Chinese spacecraft took off from the moon Thursday night with a cargo of moon rock, the first stage of its return to Earth. Chang’e 5,And the first to kick it off again, is the latest in a growing streak For the Beijing space program, which also has a Mars-bound orbiter and rover.
Just before the launch of the lander, the lander raised what the Space Administration has described as the first stand-alone Chinese flag on the moon. The agency released a photo – apparently taken from the probe – of the aerial vehicle firing its engines during takeoff.
The spacecraft “revealed the five-star red national flag, which is a real flag made of fabrics, which represents the first time in the history of the country’s airspace.” State media said.
Chang’e 5 landed on Tuesday on the Sea of Storms on the near side of the Moon. Its mission: to collect about 4 pounds of lunar rocks and return them to Earth, the first return of samples since the Soviet spacecraft did so in the 1970s. Earlier, American Apollo astronauts brought back hundreds of pounds of moon rocks.
The landing site is near a formation called the Mons Rumker and may contain rocks billions of years smaller than those recovered earlier.
The moon-landing craft took off shortly after 11 p.m. Beijing time Thursday (1500 GMT) and was scheduled to meet a returning vehicle in lunar orbit, then transport the samples to a capsule, according to the China National Space Administration. Moon rocks and debris were sealed inside a special box to avoid contamination.
It was not clear when the link would occur. After the transfer, the ascent module will be ejected and the capsule will remain in lunar orbit for about a week, waiting for the optimal time to return to Earth.
Chinese officials said the capsule containing the samples will land on the ground in the middle of the month. It was planned to land on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, as the Chinese astronauts returned aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft.
The Chang’e 5 probe, which remained on the moon’s surface, was able to take samples from the surface and drill 2 meters (about 6 feet).
While sample retrieval was its main task, the probe was also equipped to photograph the area at a large scale, map conditions below the surface using Earth penetrating radar and analyze lunar soil for minerals and water content.
Chang’e 5 re-talked about China someday sending astronauts to the moon and possibly building a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects.
China launched its first temporary orbital laboratory in 2011 and the second in 2016. Plans call for a permanent space station after 2022, possibly to be serviced by a reusable space plane.
While China is strengthening cooperation with the European Space Agency and others, interactions with NASA are severely limited due to US concerns about the covert nature and close military links of the Chinese program. On Tuesday, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s director of science, tweeted a congratulatory message to China after the spacecraft landed on the moon.
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.
The Chang’e 1 and 2 missions successfully reached lunar orbit in 2007 and 2010 respectively, followed by the Chang’e 3 lunar landers in 2013 and Chang’e 4, which Landed on the far side of the moon In 2019. Chang’e 5 is the first of two missions planned to return and the largest ambitious Chinese satellite mission to date.
Bill Harwood contributed to this report.