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China’s lunar probe returns to Earth with first samples from far side of the moon

china’s-lunar-probe-returns-to-earth-with-first-samples-from-far-side-of-the-moon

China’s lunar probe returns to Earth with first samples from far side of the moon

Officials prepare to recover the landing module of the Chang’e-6 moon probe after it landed in Inner Mongolia, in northern China on June 25, 2024. (-/AFP via Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) — China’s Chang’e-6 lunar lander returned to Earth this week with the first-ever rock and soil samples collected from the far side of the moon.

After a 53-day mission, the return vehicle successfully landed in Inner Mongolia at 2:07 p.m. local time on Tuesday, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

The landing marks “the complete success of the Chang’e-6 mission of the lunar exploration project and the world’s first return of samples from the back of the moon,” CNSA said in a news release.

The return vehicle is expected to be airlifted to Beijing to open the cabin and remove the sample container. There will be a formal handover ceremony, after which analysis and research can begin, according to CNSA.

The Chang’e-6 probe launched from the Wenchang Space launch site on the Chinese island of Hainan on May 3 and reached the moon on May 8. It orbited for 20 days before finding a landing site, according to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).

The lander separated from the orbiter and touched down on June 1 near the southern part of the Apollo crater, located within the South Pole-Aitken basin, the largest and oldest recognized basin. Researchers believe this is 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, according to the nonprofit Planetary Society.

The mission objective of the Chang’e-6 was to drill as deep as 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) below the surface of the moon to collect about 2 kilograms (about 70.5 ounces) of samples, GSFC said.

Researchers estimate the samples will consist of volcanic rocks that are 2.5 million years old as well as materials left behind by meteorite strikes, according to predictions from geologists published in the journal The Innovation on Monday.

The samples “are expected to answer one of the most fundamental scientific questions in lunar science research: what geologic activity is responsible for the differences between the two sides?” Dr. Zongyu Yue, a geologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in a release.

Several countries are trying to grow their own lunar space programs.

Last year, India and Japan became the fourth and fifth countries, respectively, to land spacecrafts on the lunar surface.

Meanwhile the U.S. is in the midst of preparing for its first-crewed missions to the moon in decades, with a moon flyby currently scheduled for September 2025 and an attempted landing on the moon scheduled for September 2026.

In August 2023, Russia had attempted to land a spacecraft on the moon for the first time since 1976, but its Luna-25 lander ended up crashing into the moon’s surface instead.

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

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