As was evident during the space race of the sixties, politically-fueled competition can go hand-in-hand with scientific collaboration. Such was the case on December 16, when China’s Chang’e-5 return capsule landed in the grasslands of the country’s Siziwang Banner near the Mongolian Border. Scientists around the world have been eagerly awaiting its arrival.
China’s Space Mission a Success
The reentry and recovery marked the end of a historic 23-day mission. Employing similar maneuvers to the later Apollo missions (lunar lander separates and reconnects with craft orbiting the moon before returning to Earth), Chang’e-5 became the first spacecraft to successfully accomplish the feat robotically since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 probe in 1976, and the first to do such a difficult maneuver on an unmanned mission. The flight’s success is a welcoming sign for upcoming missions to the moon, and is arguably China’s crowing achievement to date in space.
The success of the automated spaceflight aside, Chang’e-5’s primary mission was to return samples from the moon for the first time since the seventies. The craft landed near the moon’s Mons Rümker in a region known as Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms). Automated systems onboard directed the landing site away from nearby craters and landed the 4-ton probe on the lunar surface. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter captured an image of Chang’e-5 hours after landing.
Understanding the Moon’s Surface
The landing site was an area believed to be newer than the majority of the moon’s surface, being the site of ancient lava flows. Without active volcanoes, an atmosphere, or sources of change beyond the occasional meteor impact, many have concluded that the moon is geologically dead. However, recent studies have cast doubt on the conclusion of complete geological inactivity, spurring scientists to gather more evidence.
Jessica Flahaut, a planetary geologist at the University of Lorraine in France, said, “Remote sensing data from the last decades have also shown a number of curiosities, including felsic domes, irregular mare patches, and rock types at the lunar surface, which we don’t have in the sample collection yet. It is therefore key to insist that lunar exploration is still only at its beginning, and that there is much more to do.”
Space Mission Delivers More Lunar Knowledge
Chang’e-5 seeks to help calibrate our understanding of the moon’s age, and did its part by drilling into the rocky surface during the first few days of December. In its rendezvous with the return capsule, the probe stashed away 2 kilograms of precious moon material. Its backup craft, Chang’e-6, will be repurposed for exploring a different area of the lunar surface, and versions 7 and 8 will reportedly be used to help establish an international lunar research station, one in which the United States will utilize as it leads the way for crewed landings later this decade.
The return of astronomical samples has been in the news on the American front recently as well, with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe collecting the first sample of an asteroid (Bennu) to be returned to earth this October. The asteroid material will return to Earth in 2023, an unprecedented feat for the robot that had been orbiting the asteroid since 2018.
Space Exploration Heats Up Around the World
While 2020 will go down as a year with more than its share of shortcomings, it’s been perhaps the most exciting year in space exploration in decades. The United States is leading the way, but is undoubtedly assisted by a growing international community of interstellar capabilities.