Chinese probe lands on Moon to collect lunar samples
December 1, 2020 11:11 PM
A Chinese probe sent to the Moon to bring back the first lunar samples in four decades successfully landed on Tuesday, Beijing's space agency said.
China has poured billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and of eventually sending humans to the Moon.
The latest mission's goal is to shovel up lunar rocks and soil to help scientists learn about the Moon's origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.
The Chang'e-5 spacecraft -- named for the mythical Chinese moon goddess -- "landed on the near side of the Moon late Tuesday," state media agency Xinhua reported, citing the China National Space Administration.
If the return journey is successful, China will be only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, following the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.
The probe entered the Moon's orbit on Saturday after a 112-hour journey from Earth, Xinhua said, after a rocket carried it into space from China's southern Hainan province last week.
It is to collect two kilogrammes (4.5 pounds) of surface material in a previously unexplored area known as Oceanus Procellarum -- or "Ocean of Storms" -- which consist of a vast lava plain, according to the science journal Nature.
The collection will take place over the course of one lunar day -– equivalent to around 14 Earth days.
Its lunar samples will then be returned to Earth in a capsule programmed to land in northern China's Inner Mongolia region later in December, according to US space agency NASA.
The mission is technically challenging and involves several innovations not seen during previous attempts at collecting moon rocks, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher Jonathan McDowell told AFP last month.
Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China's "space dream", as he calls it, have been put into overdrive.
The new superpower is looking to finally catch up with the US and Russia after years of belatedly matching their space milestones.
A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019 in a global first that boosted Beijing's aspirations to become a space superpower.
The latest probe is among a slew of ambitious targets set by Beijing, which include creating a super-powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those NASA and private rocket firm SpaceX can handle, a lunar base and a permanently crewed space station.
China's astronauts and scientists have also talked up manned missions to Mars.