China’s Chang’e-6 has left the Moon with samples

Just days after China’s Chang’e-6 probe landed on the far side of the Moon, state-sponsored media reports it is heading back with samples onboard.

The spacecraft, which was the first to ever land in this region of the Moon, touched down on Sunday after launching on May 3. It was tasked with collecting and returning samples using a drill and robotic arm in a short two-day turnaround.

Now the ascender part of the spacecraft has taken off from the Moon’s surface to dock with the orbiter and eventually return. If all goes well, the samples will be with researchers in late June.

The total mission duration is slated to be 53 days.

China already has samples from the near side of the Moon as Chang’e-5 touched down there in 2020. The more rugged far side is considered a much harder feat because it is blocked from Earth’s view. It requires a communications satellite, in this case China’s Queqiao-2, to bounce messages back to Earth.

Chang’e-5 had 22 hours to collect its sample, but because positioning restricts the communication period of the relay satellite, Chang’e-6 was reduced to about 14 hours.

This meant that the collection process had to be efficient, executing instructions and judgments autonomously so as not to waste time dialing up Earth. According to Chinese media, 400 instructions were sent during the Chang’e-6 sampling process, compared to 1,000 for Chang’e-5.

The area where the samples were collected is the relatively flat SPA Basin, the oldest and largest impact crater on the Moon. Scientists reckon that when the impact occurred about 4 billion years ago, it spewed materials from its depths that could provide insight into the celestial body’s geological evolution – and they’d like a closer look.

China has said it will share scientific data and access to samples with the international community, subject to partnership or application. ®

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