China Chang’e 6 mission has landed on the Moon and is now set to perform another first: a sample return from the lunar farside.

Landing image from Chang'e 6 mission
This view shows the shadow of Chang'e 6 shortly before landing.


(June 4th): In a busy 48 hours, Chang’e 6 successfully returned surface images, deployed science instruments, deployed a small rover for a lander "selfie," and — most importantly — collected and transferred lunar samples, which were both grabbed from the surface as well as collected by drilling. After receiving the transfer, the ascent vehicle launched from the site on June 3rd at 23:38 UT. The next step in the coming days is rendezvous with the waiting lunar orbiter and transfer of its precious cargo for return to Earth.

The original story on Chang'e 6's landing is below:

The China National Space Agency (CNSA) met a key milestone for their Chang’e 6 mission on June 1st, with a successful soft landing on the Moon, in Apollo Crater within the larger South-Pole-Aitken Basin on the lunar farside. Touchdown occurred at 22:23 Universal Time (UT).

The Farside Landing

The mission launched on a Long March 5 rocket from Wenchang Space Launch Site on May 3rd. The ambitious mission combines two skills demonstrated on previous missions for the agency: a farside landing (Chang’e 4 in 2019) and a quick sample return mission (Chang’e 5 in 2020). The mission thus “involves many engineering innovations, high risks and great difficulty,” says Li Yi (CNSA) in a recent press release.

Landing zone in the lunar south pole region is outlined in red on a topographical map
The landing zone for Chang'e 6 is outlined in red on this topographic map.
The Planetary Society / NASA / Goddard

China released a descent video for Chang’e 6 yesterday (see video below), along with a quick press release on the landing.

A first look at the landing site should be forthcoming early this week. It’s a whirlwind mission, as Chang’e 6 is expected to collect up to 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of lunar soil using the lander’s robotic arm and drill, and load it on the ascent vehicle for launch within 48 hours of landing. From there, the ascent vehicle will rendezvous with the sample return vehicle in low lunar orbit, for a sample capsule return over Inner Mongolia during Earth flyby in late June.

Mission Objectives

Samples of the lunar farside could help us understand the history and formation of the Moon, especially in enabling scientists to study why the farside appears different in contrast to the nearside. Future missions may also look to exploit resources (especially water ice) in the polar regions.

Chang'e 6 on Moon, artist's illustration
An artist's conception of the lander and ascent vehicle on the lunar surface.

France’s national space agency (CNES) and the European Space Agency (ESA) are also fielding a negative ion detector and radon detector on the mission, and Italy has a laser retro reflector now deployed on the spacecraft. China’s Academy of Sciences (CAS) also has a small mini-rover on the lander, which wasn't revealed until last month. These experiments are expected to operate until the ascent vehicle lifts off, which may spell the end of surface operations.

China’s Queqiao 2 orbiter (named for the magpie bridge in a Chinese folk tale) launched in March and is acting as a relay for the mission.

China’s lunar program has thus far been an enormous success, with every mission in the Chang’e program meeting its objectives. However, the past year has been a mix of tragedy and triumph for lunar missions worldwide: Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, iSpace’s Hakuto R and Russia’s Luna 25 all either failed to reach the Moon or crash landed. Meanwhile, Japan’s SLIM and Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus landers both met with limited success, landing lopsided in a way that made generating power via their solar panels challenging. The biggest recent success has been India’s Chandrayaan 3, which fielded an orbiter, lander and rover in August 2023.

Chang'e 6 spacecraft stack in cleanroom
The spacecraft stacked ahead of launch.

China future ambitions include Chang'e 7, an orbiter/lander/rover combo that also includes a "mini-hopper" lunar probe, set for launch in 2026, as well as Chang'e 8, which will launch no earlier than 2028 to test technologies for constructing a lunar base. There might be crewed lunar missions by the early 2030s.

Meanwhile, China successfully sent the Tianwen 1 orbiter/lander/rover combo to Mars in 2021. In the long term, it’s not impossible to imagine a scaled-up version of CNSA's proven lunar sample return missions targeting a Mars sample return program. In the short term, though, watch for the return of the first lunar farside samples courtesy of Chang’e 6, coming up in late June.


Image of Josh77


June 4, 2024 at 11:17 am

It's impressive how fast they develop their technologies and succeed.

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