The Chang’e-5 probe, named after the ancient Chinese moon goddess, will seek to gather material that can help scientists understand more about the moon’s origin and formation. The mission will test China’s ability to obtain remote samples from space, ahead of more complex missions.
If successful, the mission will make China only the third country to have taken lunar samples, following the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago.
Ever since the Soviet Union landed Luna 2 on the moon in 1959, the first human object to reach another celestial body, a handful of other countries, including Japan and India, have begun moon missions.
In the Apollo program, which first landed men on the moon, the United States landed 12 astronauts on six flights from 1969 to 1972, bringing back 382 kilograms (842 kilograms) of rock and soil.
The Soviet Union developed three successful robotic sample missions in the 1970s. The last, the Luna 24, acquired 170.1 grams (6 ounces) of samples in 1976 from Mare Crisium, or “Sea of Crises.”
The China probe, scheduled to launch in the next few days, will try to collect 2kg (4 1/2kg) of samples in a previously untested area in a vast lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum, or “Ocean of Storms”. .
“The moon’s Apollo-Luna sampling zone, while critical to our understanding, took place in an area that is much less than half the lunar surface,” said James Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University.
Subsequent data from remote tracking missions have shown a wider variety of rock types, mineralogies and ages than those represented in the Apollo-Luna sample collections, he said.
“Lunar scientists are advocating for robotic sample return missions to these many different critical areas to address a number of fundamental questions left over from previous exploration,” said Head.
The Chang’e-5 mission could help answer questions such as how long the moon remained volcanically active inside and when the magnetic field – the key to protecting any form of life from the sun – disappeared.
Once in orbit around the moon, the detector will aim to develop a pair of vehicles to the surface: an unloader will drill into the ground, then transport the soil and rock samples to an elevator that will be lifted and docked with an orbit.
If successful, the samples will be transferred to a return capsule that will return them to Earth.
Within the next decade, China plans to set up a robotic base station to conduct unmanned exploration in the South Pole region.
It will be deployed through the Chang’e-6 7 and 8 missions by 2020 and will be extended until 2030 before manned landings.
China plans to recover samples from Mars by 2030.
In July, China launched an unmanned mission to Mars on its first independent mission to another planet.