China: Farthest lunar probe Chang’e-6 resumes mission

image caption, China’s craft displays the country’s flag after completing its sampling mission – the first time any country has flown a flag on the far side of the moon.

  • author, Francis Mao
  • stock, BBC News

China says its lunar probe has successfully lifted off from the far side of the moon to begin its journey back to Earth carrying the first samples collected from the region.

State media said the Chang’e-6 craft’s collection module will resume travel at 07:38 on Tuesday (23:38 GMT Monday).

On Sunday, a robot landed in a giant crater near the moon’s south pole in a world first celebrated by the international scientific community.

China is the only country to have landed on the far side of the moon in 2019.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) described the mission’s landing and lift-off as an “unprecedented achievement in human lunar exploration”.

The far or “dark” side of the Moon – the one facing away from Earth – is technically challenging to reach due to its distance and rugged terrain of giant, deep craters and some flat surfaces.

Space officials had to use the satellite to operate and maintain communications with the Chang’e-6 craft.

China is the first country to bring back rock and soil samples from the far side of the moon, which scientists say will be very different from nearby rock formations.

It is China’s sixth mission to the moon, named after Chang, the moon goddess in Chinese mythology.

A successful mission so far

CNSA announced the end of the model on Tuesday, saying the craft had “withstood the test of extreme temperatures on the far side of the Moon” and was now beginning its return.

Its ascent module successfully “lifted off the lunar surface” with samples in a metal vacuum container on Tuesday.

After liftoff, the module entered a “predetermined orbit around the Moon.” The container will transfer to a re-entry capsule set to return to Earth and land in the deserts of Inner Mongolia on June 25.

Chang’e-6 spent two days collecting rocks and soil – using a mechanical arm and a drill to collect about 2kg (4.4lb) of material.

It is located in the South Pole-Aitken Basin – a large crater on the far side of the Moon, one of the largest known in the Solar System.

Since it is very difficult for spacecraft to communicate once they reach the far side of the Moon, operating a craft there is fraught with danger.

China’s space authorities described the operation as involving “many engineering innovations, high risks and great difficulties”.

video title, A video shows a Chinese probe landing on a distant moon

Scientists are excited about the available samples from the moon’s oldest rocks.

People in China will be given the first opportunity to study the reef, and later researchers from around the world will be able to apply for the opportunity.

“Everyone is very interested in seeing these rocks that no one has ever seen before,” Professor John Burnett-Fisher, a lunar geologist at the University of Manchester, told the BBC last week.

The prospect of analyzing rock from a completely different part of the moon could answer fundamental questions about how planets form, he said.

The moon’s south pole is the next frontier in lunar exploration — a region countries are keen to understand because of its potential for ice.

Access to water would significantly increase the chances of successfully establishing a human base on the moon for scientific research.

This is China’s second mission to collect samples from the moon—but it’s aimed at remote extraction.

In 2020, its Chang’e-5 craft brought back 1.7 kg of material from Oceanus Procellarum, a region near the Moon.

The year before, China became the first country to reach the far side of the Moon with its Chang’e-4 landing.

China plans three more unmanned missions this decade as it searches for water on the moon and explores building a permanent base there. The country already has its own space station called Tiangong or Heavenly Palace.

Beijing’s broader strategy aims to have a Chinese astronaut walk on the moon by 2030.

The United States aims to put astronauts back on the moon, with NASA launching its Artemis-3 program in 2026.

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