SpaceNews and Space Daily are both reporting today (December 22, 2020) that China’s Chang’e 5 mission – one component of which successfully returned rocks from the moon to Earth last week – is now heading for a gravitationally stable point in space, the sun-Earth Lagrange point known as L1. Hu Hao, chief engineer of the mission’s third stage, reported to the press on December 20 that more than 440 pounds (200 kg) of propellant remain: ample fuel to keep the orbiter mobile.
This extended mission follows the craft’s successful return of moon rocks to Earth last week, the first new moon samples in 44 years. The craft launched from Earth on November 23, 2020. The lander landed on the moon on December 1, and the return capsule brought about 60 ounces (3 3/4 pounds, or 1.731 kilograms) of lunar material back to Earth’s surface on December 16. The orbiter remained in space. According to SpaceNews:
The spacecraft is now heading to a sun-Earth Lagrange point to carry out observations of the local environment, the sun, and perform operational tests.
Broadcasters at the China Global Television Network reported on the spacecraft’s parachute return-landing last week in the East Asian country of Mongolia. The landing took place at around 1 p.m. Eastern Time (18:00 UTC) on Wednesday, December 16. The video below, from the South China Morning Post, tells the story of the return of lunar samples to Earth:
The samples returned to Earth in the Chang’e 5 capsule are the first moon rocks to arrive back on Earth since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.
Chang'e-5 reentry capsule found! pic.twitter.com/Ijv3yaWObN
— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) December 16, 2020
The lunar landing site of the Chang’e 5 mission – the Mons Rumker area – was in the vast lunar volcanic plain known as Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms). Parts of this region on the moon have been explored by other moon missions, including NASA’s Apollo 12 in 1969. Rocks in the Mons Rumker region are thought to have formed just 1.2 billion years ago. In contrast, the moon rocks brought home by the Apollo astronauts – between 1969 and 1972 – are much older. The Planetary Society, a U.S. nonprofit space advocacy group, explained:
The samples should be the youngest ever returned to Earth: just 1.2 billion years old, when multicellular life may have already evolved on our planet. Chang’e-5 will help scientists understand what was happening late in the moon’s history, as well as how Earth and the solar system evolved.
Check out the video below, which has been making the rounds on social media. It consists of hundreds of photos stitched together to show Chang’e 5’s successful lunar landing:
The landing of Chang'e 5's descender and ascender unit.
— LaunchStuff (@LaunchStuff) December 2, 2020
Chang’e 5 is not the only ongoing sample-return mission. Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission returned a lander from space to the continent of Australia on December 6, 2020; it brought pieces of the asteroid Ryugu collected over two years ago. More recently, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe took a sample of the asteroid Bennu; that material is expected to be returned to Earth in September 2023.
The space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger. The Chinese people will take bigger strides to explore further into space.
China became the first country to send an unmanned rover to the far side of the moon last year. Last July, China launched its first unmanned mission to Mars – Tianwen-1 – expected to arrive in February 2021. If Tianwen-1 is successful, Beijing hopes eventually to send a manned mission to Mars. There are also plans to bring up a permanent space station by 2022, as well as sending astronauts back to the moon by the 2030s.
If this proves successful, China would become the second country in the world to put a human on the moon, after the U.S.
Bottom line: China’s robotic Chang’e 5 spacecraft is now heading for a gravitationally stable point in space, the sun-Earth Lagrange point known as L1, after another component of the craft returned successfully to Earth on December 16, loaded with moon rocks — the first since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.
Lia Rovira is a Physics graduate and Editorial Assistant of EarthSky, contributing also as a field correspondent with a long-time passion for space exploration that began early in her college career. She started her blog SkyFeed in 2018, which earned a mention in Feedspot’s “Top 50 Space Blogs to Follow," has been published in Smore Magazine, and led her to launch a communications career in tandem with her planetary passion. She currently resides in Southern California with her fiancé and small pug pup.