Chinese spacecraft launches this week to bring rocks back from the moon

Most samples of moon dust and rocks that are available for scientists to study on Earth date back to the Apollo era, with the last samples being returned from the moon in the 70s. China wants to change that, and this week will launch the Chang'e-5 probe that will collect material from the moon's surface and return it to Earth for study. The mission will test China's ability to pick up samples remotely in preparation for more complicated missions in the future.

If China can recover material from the moon, it will become only the third nation to complete the feat. The United States and the Soviet Union are the only countries to have returned samples from the Moon. While only two countries have retrieved samples from the moon, both Japan and India have launched moon missions.

The first human-made object to land on the moon was a spacecraft called the Luna 2 sent by the Soviet Union that crashed into the moon in 1959. It was the first human-made object to reach another celestial body. The Apollo-era missions sent six flights between 1969 and 1972 to the moon and returned 842 pounds of rocks and soil from the moon.

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union sent three successful robotic sample return missions to the moon, with the last called Luna 24 bringing back a mere six ounces of sample. China wants to collect about 4.5 pounds of moon samples from a previously unvisited area of the moon. China wants to collect samples from a lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum, meaning Ocean of Storms.

The Apollo-era samples all came from less than half of the lunar surface. Scientists have advocated for new sample return missions to look at different critical areas where questions remain from the previous exploration.