Early Tuesday morning at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in South China’s Hainan province, the China National Space Administration successfully launched its Chang’e 5 mission to the moon. The mission is intended to bring back samples of lunar material from the moon for the first time in 44 years. Chang’e 5 launched atop a Long March 5 heavy-lift carrier rocket, the biggest and most powerful launch vehicle China has.
The Long March 5 rocket is massive at 20-stories tall and lifted off at 4:30 AM. The Chang’e 5 spacecraft itself is also quite large, measuring 8.2 metric tons, and features four components. Components include the orbiter, lander, ascender, and re-entry capsule. China says that the Chang’e 5 probe is the largest and heaviest in its fleet.
The lunar probe will head towards the moon in the next several days, where it will make correction operations before it conducts a braking maneuver to slow the spacecraft down, so it doesn’t fly past the moon. Once the spacecraft is in orbit around the moon, it will remain in orbit for a while before separating into two parts, with the orbiter and reentry capsule staying in orbit around the moon. At the same time, the lander-ascender combination heads towards the lunar surface.
The lander-ascender portion will make an engine-assisted touchdown on the moon and use a drill on board to obtain rocks from two meters underneath the lunar surface. It also has a mechanical arm that will be able to gather dirt from the surface. The goal is to collect about two kilograms of stone and soil packed in a vacuum-sealed metal container inside the lander.
After two days, the sample gathering operation will be complete. The ascender rocket will launch from the lunar surface, where it will dock with the reentry module in orbit and transfer lunar samples to the module before undocking. The orbiter and reentry capsule will then return to Earth, where the pair will separate, and the capsule will return to Earth with the samples. A successful mission will make China the third nation to successfully return samples from the moon.