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Why is China Collecting Lunar Rocks? All You Need to Know about Chang'e-5's Trip to Moon and Back

The Chang'e-5 lunar probe returned to Earth on Wednesday, bringing back moon rocks to the planet, four decades since the Soviet Union did in 1976 | Image credit: Reuters

The Chang'e-5 lunar probe returned to Earth on Wednesday, bringing back moon rocks to the planet, four decades since the Soviet Union did in 1976 | Image credit: Reuters

China's Xi Jinping congratulated the success of Chang'e-5 unmanned lunar mission to collect moon rocks, 44 years after Soviet Russia did in 1976.

Less than a month since its launch into space, China's Chang’e-5 lunar probe has returned safely to Earth. And it has not come empty-handed. The Chinese space capsule Chang'e-5 touched down this Wednesday, bringing with about 4kg moon rock.

According to state media reports, a "ground search and recovery team" arrived at the landing site of Chang'e-5 following the touchdown to carry out primary inspection work around the #Change5 re-entry capsule.

The successful landing marks the first time in over 40 years that rocks from the moon were brought back to the green planet. It also adds yet another feather to the cap of China's growing list of space conquests including the successful launch of Chang'e 4 probe last year which became the first spacecraft to land on the "dark side of the moon".

Chinese President Xi Jinping also praised the mission's success. But what is the Chang'e-5 lunar mission and why is China so interested in studying moon rocks?

What is Chang'e-5?

Chang'e-5 lunar probe is a robotic space mission under the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program which was launched from China on November 23 and reached the moon on December 1. The mission consisted of four individual unmanned spacecrafts - a landing module, an ascent module, an orbital module, and a reentry module. The solar-powered probe was intended for a short stay as it would not sustain long periods in frigid lunar nights. The probe began its journey back home last Sunday and made the touchdown on Wednesday.

China’s space program has a series of ambitious missions underway, including a probe en route to Mars. The Chang’e lunar program, named after the ancient Chinese moon goddess, has been operating the Chang'e-4 probe on the moon’s less explored far side for the past two years..

When did Chang'e-5 reach Earth?

The Chang’e-5 lunar probe, which had been orbiting the moon for about a week, fired up four engines for about 22 minutes to move out of the moon’s orbit earlier in the week. According to reports, the craft’s lander had touched down on the moon on December 1 close to a formation called the Mons Rumker. The lander collected about two kg worth of lunar rocks from the area, which is believed to have been the site of ancient volcanic activity.

China National Space Administration said in a social media post that the return capsule landed in northern China on Wednesday in the Inner Mongolia region after separating from the rest of the spacecraft and floating down on parachutes.

How did China get rocks from the moon?

The rocks and other debris were obtained both by drilling into the moon’s crust and scooping directly off the surface. They may be billions of years younger than those brought back by earlier U.S. and Soviet missions, possibly offering insights into the moon’s history and that of other bodies in the solar system. Prior to launch, China had reportedly targeted collecting up to 4kg of moon rocks in a bid to carry out prolonged experiments and studies. It is not yet clear how much lunar surface material Chang’e-5 was successful in collecting.

Why is China collecting moon rocks?

The objective of the lunar surface material collection is reportedly to study a part of the moon named ‘Oceanus Procellarum’, which is believed to be much smoother than the rest of the lunar surface. Scientists believe that the difference in terrain may be linked to volcanic activity on the lunar surface, one which has happened fairly recently – in space time scale. As a result, studying of moon samples collected from this region will help scientists better understand the lunar surface as well as more details regarding its interaction with Earth.

The mission is thus meant to provide a deeper understanding of the formation, geological history, and origin of Earth's natural satellite. But scientific inquiry may not be China's only end. The successful completion of the ambitious Chang'e-5 mission will also mark China's increasing capability in space.

Is this China's first tryst with the moon?

In January last year, China made history when its lunar probe comprising Chang'e 4 moon lander and its rover Yutu 2 landed on the Von Karman Crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin of the moon. The probe was launched back in December 2018 and since then, Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has been giving regular updates about the moon and its surface.

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Why is China investing in space?

China has invested billions of dollars in space research under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. The funds have contributed toward the development of its intensive and aggressively proliferating space program. China's space aggression is perhaps a good set for its even more aggressive foreign policy back on Earth, which is aimed at bringing forth the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." During its trip to the moon, the Chang'e-5 mission also managed to plan the Chinese flag on lunar soil, making china to become the second country in the world to ever do so. The claim to the moon harks back to the space race of the 1960s and 1970s, an era that led to unprecedented achievements made by both Russia and USA in space missions while trying to compete with each other from both nuclear and ideological fronts.

China's 13th Five Year Plan presents "space" as a research priority in the nation including in-orbit as well as deep space explorations. In keeping with its growing space footprint, Beijing is also on the verge of building a permanent space station by 2022 and a manned mission to the moon by the next decade.

READ: Mars is the Latest Frontier in US-China Rivalry with Both Launching Probes to Red Planet This Month

What will China do with moon rocks?

China has set up labs to analyze the samples for age and composition and is also expected to share some of them with other countries, as was done with the hundreds of kilograms brought back by the U.S. and former Soviet Union.

Future plans call for returning a human to the moon and perhaps a permanent moon base. China is also building a space station to begin operating as early as 2022.

The Chinese lunar mission is also testing out technologies that will be needed for future missions to the Moon as well as Mars. According to ABC Science, the technology used in this mission for functions like navigation, landing, docking in space and re-entering earth will also help with crewed missions in the future too.

Is China the only country to have brought back moon rocks?

With the successful landing of the mission, China has now become the third country ever to have ever collected lunar samples, and also the first one in 44 years after Russia achieved this feat in its unmanned Luna 24 mission back in 1976. Both Chang'e and the Soviet mission were unmanned.

The only country that ever sent a manned mission to the moon was the United States So far. Between 1969 and 1972, Apollo managed to send a manned mission to the moon to collect moon rock samples. The iconic Apollo missions are best remembered for putting the first man on the moon, an incident that occurred in the heart of the cold war.

(With inputs from AP)