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China’s Chang’e-6 lifts off from far side of Moon with rock samples

In News, World
June 04, 2024

Probe’s successful departure from the Moon means China is closer to becoming the first country to return samples from the far side of the Moon.

A Chinese spacecraft carrying rock and soil samples from the far side of the Moon has lifted off from the lunar surface to start its journey back to Earth, according to state media.

The achievement on Tuesday is a world first and the latest leap for Beijing’s decades-old space programme, which aims to send a crewed mission to the Moon by 2030.

The Xinhua News Agency, citing the China National Space Administration (CNSA), said that the ascender of the Chang’e-6 probe took off at 7:38am local time on Tuesday (23:38 GMT) and entered a preset orbit around the moon.

It described the move as “an unprecedented feat in human lunar exploration history”.

The Chang’e-6 probe was launched last month and its lander touched down on the far side of the Moon on Sunday. It used a drill and robotic arm to dig up soil on and below the Moon’s surface, according to Xinhua.

After successfully gathering its samples, the Chang’e-6 unfurled China’s national flag for the first time on the far side of the Moon, it said.

The agency cited the CNSA as saying that the spacecraft stowed the samples it had gathered in a container inside the ascender of the probe as planned.

The container will be transferred to a reentry capsule which is due to return to Earth in the deserts of China’s Inner Mongolia region sometime around June 25.

Missions to the Moon’s far side are more difficult because it does not face the Earth, requiring a relay satellite to maintain communications. The terrain is also more rugged, with fewer flat areas to land.

Xinhua said the probe’s landing site was the South Pole-Aitken Basin, an impact crater created more than 4 billion years ago, which is 13km (8 miles) deep and has a diameter of 2,500km (1,500 miles).

It is the oldest and largest of such craters on the moon, so may provide the earliest information about it, Xinhua said, adding that the huge impact may have ejected materials from deep below the surface.

The mission is the sixth in the Chang’e Moon exploration programme, which is named after a Chinese Moon goddess. It is the second designed to bring back samples, following the Chang’e 5, which did so from the near side in 2020.

Scientists around the world are following the return of the lunar samples and hope the soil collected by Chang’e-6 can help answer questions about the origins of the solar system.

China’s Moon programme is part of a growing rivalry with the United States – still the leader in space exploration – and others, including Japan and India.

China has put its own space station – the Tiangong – into orbit and regularly sends crews there.

The emerging global power aims to put a person on the Moon before 2030, which would make it the second nation after the US to do so.

The US is planning to land astronauts on the Moon again – for the first time in more than 50 years – although its space agency NASA pushed the target date back to 2026 earlier this year.

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