Chinese Chang'e 5 spacecraft has entered orbit around the moon

Less than a week ago, we mentioned China had launched its Chang'e 5 mission to the moon. The goal of the mission is to gather lunar samples and return them to Earth for study. China has announced that the spacecraft has now entered orbit around the moon.

The large spacecraft weighs over 18,000 pounds and launched on Monday, November 23, from China. The trip from Earth orbit to the moon spanned 112 hours, with it entering orbit around the moon on November 28. The Chinese space agency reported that the orbiter successfully fired its main engine at 7:58 AM EST at a distance of 249 miles away from the moon.

The spacecraft fired its engine for around 17 minutes to enter lunar orbit. That allowed the spacecraft to slow enough to be captured by the moon's gravity. If the mission is successful, China will become the first country to attempt to return samples to Earth since 1976. The last sample return mission was conducted by the Soviet Union and was called Luna 24.

Only the United States and the Soviet Union have ever successfully returned samples from the moon. The US Apollo program returned hundreds of pounds of samples from various missions. Chang'e 5 aims to bring back about two kilograms of stone and soil from different regions than Russian and American samples were gathered from.

As Chang'e 5 has traveled towards the moon, radio enthusiasts have been able to track the spacecraft and have managed to decode some of the data sent back to Earth. Interestingly, part of the data these enthusiasts have decoded shows a video of the spacecraft solar panel shining in the sun. It's unclear exactly when China plans to attempt to send the letter down to the lunar surface, but it could happen as early as today, Sunday, November 29.