An 8-day flight involving a swing around the Moon ended successfully when a capsule landed safely on Earth. The test flight was a dress rehearsal for a future mission to bring back lunar samples.

Chang'e 5T1 capsule
Chinese researchers retrieve experiments from inside a capsule that looped around the moon and safely returned to Earth early on November 1, 2014.
Xinhua / Ren Junchuan

In a country with many secrets, China has loudly proclaimed that it intends to make the Moon a central focus of its space program. The next step in that effort ended early Saturday morning (late on October 31st Universal Time) when a capsule slammed into Earth's atmosphere at 7 miles (11.2 km) per second and safely parachuted to a landing site in Inner Mongolia.

The flight of Chang'e 5-T1, informally known as Xiaofei, began on October 23rd when a Long March 3C rocket lofted the spacecraft on a trajectory toward the Moon. Four days later it passed about 8,000 miles (13,000 km) from the lunar surface before heading home. Pictures released by the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program show the blunt capsule, roughly the size of a washing machine, resting upright with scorching from its high-temperature reentry.

The main spacecraft is a near-clone of Chang'e 2, a box-shaped structure with long solar-cell arrays that orbited the Moon in 2011 and later photographed asteroid 4179 Toutatis at close range. Besides its high-resolution camera, which relayed a stunning view of the Moon's farside with a gibbous Earth in the distance, the craft reportedly carries an experiment that exposed bacteria and plants to space radiation and secondary payloads for German and Spanish research teams.

Moon and Earth from Chinese lunar probe
The Chang'e 5 test vehicle recorded this view of the Moon (with Earth in the background) on October 28, 2014. The small, dark patch left of center is Mare Moscoviense, one of the few lava plains on the Moon's farside.
Xinhua News

According a report published by Chinese Military Online, the main spacecraft will spend some time hovering near the L2 Lagrangian point before returning to the Moon and slipping into orbit.

Apart from successfully making the round-trip lunar voyage — the first since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 did so in 1976 — the spacecraft was an engineering test designed to lead to a sample-return mission. That mission, Chang'e 5, is designed to return some 4½ pounds (2 kg) of lunar material and could occur as early as 2017. (Space aficionados aren't clear if or when a Chang'e 4 spacecraft might be launched.)

Meanwhile, China's small lunar rover Yutu, which dropped onto Sinus Iridum last December, continues to function — barely. It encountered problems during the brutal cold of its first 2-week-long lunar night, which left it immobile. But Chinese space officials say that it is still communicating with mission controllers on Earth.

Want to compare the Moon's nearside and farside for yourself? Check out Sky & Telescope's terrific new lunar globes. Choose either the natural-hued Moon you see by eye or the color-coded topographic version.


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November 5, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Congrats to the Chinese with the successful completion of the Chang'e 5 T1 mission. As would be expected, there has been a lot of discussion on the web about this mission and attempts to minimize its importance. But one of my favorite quotes has got to be one attributed to planetary geologist Paul Spudis who said "And to the brainless twits who might comment that they [China] are only doing something that we [the United States] have already done, I will simply note that no one at the current incarnation of NASA has done it."

While the Chinese certainly deserve credit for their recent Moon-related successes, I do have to call them out on one of their claims made about their Chang'e 3 mission which landed on the Moon almost a year ago: In addition to the Yutu rover, the lander also carried instruments that are capable of making astronomical observations leading Chinese officials to claim that this was the first long-term astronomical observatory on the lunar surface (as opposed to the couple of days of astronomical observations made in one experiment carried on the Apollo 16 mission in 1972). Nothing could be further from the truth! The Soviet Lunokhod rovers made published astronomical observations from the surface of the Moon that were made over several months beating the Chinese claim by four decades.

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Anthony Barreiro

November 5, 2014 at 6:56 pm

The picture of the Moon and the Earth is awe-inspiring. Congratulations to everyone who has worked on this mission.

I hope all the people of the Earth will be able to cooperate in space exploration. With increasing tension between the United States and Russia and China, and growing commercialization, we seem to be returning to the days of the cold war space race. At least there are more players now, which makes for some interesting collaborations within the shifting alliances.

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