The Chang’e-5 probe, named after an ancient Chinese moon goddess, will seek to collect materials that can help scientists understand more about the origins and composition of the moon. The mission will test China’s ability to obtain samples from remote space, before undertaking more complex missions.
If the mission succeeds, it would make China only the third country to recover samples from the moon, after the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago.
Since the Soviet Union landed Luna 2 on the moon in 1959, the first man-made object to reach another celestial body, a handful of other countries including Japan and India have launched missions to the moon.
In the Apollo program, which put men for the first time on the surface of the moon, the United States landed 12 astronauts over six flights from 1969 to 1972, returning 382 kg (842 pounds) of rock and soil.
The Soviet Union deployed three successful mechanized sample return missions in the 1970s. The most recent, Luna 24, recovered 170.1 grams (6 ounces) of 1976 specimens from Mary Crisium, or “Sea of Crisis.”
The Chinese probe, due to be launched in the coming days, will attempt to collect 2 kilograms (4 1/2 lbs) of samples in a previously unexplored area of a massive lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum, or “ocean storms.”
“The Apollo Luna sample region of the Moon, although important for our understanding, was made in a region that includes much less than half of the moon’s surface,” said James Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University.
He said that later data from orbital remote sensing missions showed greater diversity in rock and mineral types and ages than shown in the Apollo Luna sample sets.
“Lunar scientists have been advocating robotic missions to return samples to these various critical regions in order to address a set of fundamental questions left over from previous exploration,” Head said.
The Chang’e-5 mission may help answer questions such as how long the moon has remained volcanically active in its interior and when its magnetic field has dissipated – key to protecting any form of life from the sun’s rays.
Once in lunar orbit, the probe will aim to spread a pair of vehicles to the surface: the lander will drill into the ground, then transfer soil and rock samples to an uphill that launches and attaches to an orbital module.
If successful, the samples will be transported to a return capsule that will return it to Earth.
Within the next decade, China plans to establish an automated base station to conduct unmanned exploration operations in the Antarctic region.
It will be developed by the Chang’e-6 7 and 8 expeditions during the 1920s, and expanded during the 2030s before manned landings.
China plans to recover samples from Mars by 2030.
In July, China launched an unmanned probe to Mars in its first independent mission to another planet.