China’s Chang’e 5 lunar sample-return capsule has arrived safely on Earth.
After a whirlwind journey to the Moon and back, China’s Chang’e 5 sample return mission entered Earth’s atmosphere, deployed its parachutes, and came to rest in the Dorbod (Siziwang) Banner region of Inner Mongolia. Inside, its precious cargo: several kilograms of lunar material collected from the top two meters of the Moon’s surface.
The capsule made a skip-entry over the Arabian Sea and south-central Asia before landing at 1:59 a.m. local time (17:59 UT) on December 17th.. After a brief helicopter search, the recovery team quickly located the capsule and carried out retrieval under sub-zero conditions.
“This success marks a new milestone in the development of China’s space industry,” said Wu Yanhua, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, in a recent press conference (translated in linked YouTube video). “China has mastered the technology for shuttling between the Earth and Moon, and the completion of the three phases of orbiting, landing and returning has laid a foundation for China’s lunar exploration.”
The mission was a quick one, and went off without a hitch. Chang’e 5 launched atop a Long March 5 rocket on November 23rd (UT) and entered lunar orbit on November 28th. The lander then separated from the orbiting service module and touched down on December 1st in Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms) near the Mons Rümker feature.
The lander collected lunar samples within 24 hours after landing, and the ascent vehicle launched from the lunar surface on December 3rd. After an automated rendezvous in lunar orbit reminiscent of the crewed Apollo-era missions, the sample return was transferred from the ascent vehicle to the service module, which then broke orbit and headed back to Earth.
Ham radio operators tracked the mission and provided Twitter updates to observers of the Chinese space program in the West. Other Twitterverse coverage includes this interesting photobomb of the live feed of the capsule's recovery:
China: daring, multi-billion-dollar, 23-day Moon-and-back mission to collect lunar samples
Cosmic fox: MINE pic.twitter.com/2NsLPThkcd
— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) December 16, 2020
The feat represents the first sample return from the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. The accomplishment was a first for China and represents the culmination of a series of lunar missions in the Chang’e program, including China’s first lunar rover Yutu (Chang’e 3), the first-ever landing on the lunar farside with Chang’e 4, and the Chang’e 5 T1 capsule return in 2014, a dress rehearsal for the Chang’e 5 sample return.
The sample container is thought to include well above the mission's goal of 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of lunar regolith. The collected material collected is relatively young, "only" 1.2 billion years old compared to the 3–4 billion years old material collected by Apollo astronauts. The Chang’e 5 sample return will be opened after it arrives in Beijing, and the material will be available to Chinese researchers and international collaborators for study.
What’s Next For China's Space Program
The Sun has now set over the solar-powered Chang’e 5 lander, which lies dormant on the lunar surface. The ascent vehicle de-orbited and impacted the lunar surface on December 7th in the southern highlands, near between the craters Walther and Regiomontanus. However, the Chang’e 5 orbiter is still out there, post-capsule return and Earth flyby, and there is talk from the CNSA of a possible extended mission.
China plans to carry out another lunar sampling mission (Chang’e 6) in 2023. Meanwhile, CNSA’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission featuring an orbiter, lander and rover arrives at the Red Planet in February 2021, along with the UAE’s Mars Hope orbiter, and NASA’s Perseverance Rover. China also just launched its Gravitational Wave High-energy Electromagnetic Counterpart All-sky Monitor (GECAM), a gamma-ray detector specifically designed to follow up on gravitational-wave detections.
A large number of particles are confirmed to be in “sample chamber A” inside the collected capsule (~11:10 JST on 12/15). This is thought to be the sample from the first touchdown on Ryugu. The photo looks brown, but our team says “black”! The sample return is a great success! pic.twitter.com/34vIx17zOX
— HAYABUSA2@JAXA (@haya2e_jaxa) December 15, 2020
It has been a busy month for sample returns, as the Japanese space agency just opened the Hayabusa 2's sample-return capsule this week, revealing a sample of the asteroid 162173 Ryugu that looks like coffee grounds mixed with larger granules. NASA’s Osiris-REX mission recently departed Bennu with its own sample, set to arrive on Earth in 2023.
The Chang’e 5 lunar sample delivery to Earth caps an exciting year of space exploration in 2020.