SpaceX’s recent activities have definitely taken up a large portion of space science news but it is hardly the only one with its eyes looking to the heavens. Establishing some presence in outer space is obviously a race among the world’s superpowers and China just broke a few records, many of it its own, these past weeks. Its Chang’e 5 spacecraft has just returned from a historic lunar mission, bringing with it the Earth’s first moon rocks and dirt in over four decades.
1976 was the last time any mission brought home some moon materials for study, though the combined US and Russian provided 842 lbs (382 kg) of rocks and dirt during a three year period. China’s sampling of around 4.4 lbs (2 kg) seems almost paltry but it still a lot more compared to the then Soviet Union’s 170 grams in 1976. Considering the period of time since then, this relatively smaller collection is still a monumental success.
The Chang’e 5 mission itself was quite historic, especially for China. Aside from returning with the country’s lunar samples, it was also China’s first liftoff from an extraterrestrial body like the moon as well as its first rendezvous in lunar orbit.
The Change’e spacecraft was actually composed of two pairs of two parts. A lander-ascender that would land on the moon’s surface, gather materials, and then lift off to dock with the orbiter-returner which would then make the journey back home. The lander got irreparably damaged when the ascender took off and the ascender itself was deorbited and crashed back to the moon.
The lunar samples do more than just fill in a 44-year gap in space science. Scientists also theorize that it could fill in our knowledge gap in the history of the moon itself. The earliest samples brought home by US-Russian missions were dated to be more than 3 billion years old while the latest craters are thought to be younger than 1 billion years. Samples gather from the volcanic mountain Mons Rümker in the moon’s “Ocean of Storms” (Oceanus Procellarum) are believed to be around 1.2 billion years old.