What to know as China attempts to be first country to return samples from far side of the moon


(NEW YORK) — China is set to launch the first-ever mission, known as Chang’e 6, on Friday to collect rock and soil samples from the far side of the moon.

The lunar lander is scheduled to launch by rocket at 3:50 a.m. ET from the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the island of Hainan, located to the south of China, according to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The 53-day mission will send the spacecraft to the side of the moon that always faces away from Earth with the goal of collecting about 4.4 pounds of material, NASA says.

If the mission goes according to plan, the lander will separate from the orbiter and descend onto the lunar surface by the southern part of Apollo crater within the South Pole-Aitken basin — the largest and oldest recognized basin — which is believed to be the site of an impact more than 4 billion years ago.

This region has been thought to be a key part of understanding what caused a massive number of impacts on the moon billions of years ago during a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment and why the far side differs dramatically from the near side, according to the nonprofit Planetary Society.

The landing site will help “address questions about the multiple lunar nearside – farside dichotomies and to provide new insights into both the early impact history of the Solar System and the geological evolution of the moon,” a team at the Laboratory of Lunar and Deep Space Exploration at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing said in a paper published in the journal Nature in July 2023.

Using a scooper and a drill, the lander will obtain samples, both from the surface and as deep as 2 meters below the surface, according to NASA.

In previous sample return missions, spacecrafts have been able to communicate with teams back on Earth with “line-of-sight” communications, the Planetary Society said.

The far-side mission will require communications with a relay satellite, specifically the Queqiao-2 relay satellite, which launched in March 2024. The satellite has an antenna with a diameter of nearly 14 feet, making it one of the largest ever sent into space, according to the Planetary Society.

Once the samples have been connected, they will be loaded into an ascent vehicle, which is on top of the lunar lander. The lander will then be taken to the orbiter. The samples will be transferred into the reentry module and the orbiter will carry the reentry module back to Earth, NASA said.

This is the second sample return mission for the CNSA after Chang’e 5 in 2020, which collected about 61 ounces of samples from the bear side of the moon. It also made China the third country, behind the United States and the former Soviet Union, to return moon samples to Earth. Additionally, Chang’e 4 conducted a soft landing on the far side of the moon in January 2019.

The CNSA has future lunar missions planned after Chang’e 6, including Chang’e 7, planned for 2026, which will make detailed surveys of the south pole of the moon and Chang’e 8, planned for 2028, which will test technology necessary to construct a lunar science base, according to NASA.

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