Chinese Chang’e-6 probe to the far side of the Moon begins its return journey

China says its lunar probe has successfully lifted off from the far side of the Moon to begin its return journey to Earth with the first samples collected in that region.

State media say a module of the Chang’e-6 spacecraft, named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology, successfully lifted off around 07:38 on Tuesday (23:38 GMT Monday). to begin the return journey.

The spacecraft landed near the south pole of the Moon on Sunday in a world first feat celebrated by the international scientific community.

China is the only country to have landed on the far side of the Moon, having also done so before in 2019.

The China National Space Administration called the mission an “unprecedented feat in human lunar exploration.”

That side of the Moon, which always faces away from Earth, is technically difficult to reach due to its rugged terrain and deep craters.

China’s mission aims to be the first to bring back samples of rocks and soil from the region, which scientists say could be very different from the rock formations on the near side of the Moon.

State media published videos from the Chinese space agency showing the unmanned robot ship sticking out a tiny arm and waving the Chinese flag after collecting the precious samples.

On Tuesday, Chinese state media announced the module’s successful liftoff, quoting the CNSA as saying that the probe’s ascending module had “lifted off from the lunar surface.”

“The mission has withstood the test of high temperatures on the far side of the Moon,” the space agency said.

After takeoff, the module entered a “pre-established orbit around the Moon.”

The entire probe is scheduled to return in about three weeks to a landing site in Inner Mongolia.

Scientists from China will have the first opportunity to analyze the rocks, and later researchers around the world will also be able to apply for this opportunity.

Scientists are excited about the samples China could collect. The probe could extract some of the Moon’s oldest rocks from a huge crater at its south pole.

The probe landed Sunday in a gigantic crater known as the Aitken-South Pole basin. The crater is one of the largest known in the solar system.

The landing was fraught with risk, because it is very difficult to communicate with spacecraft once they reach the far side of the Moon.

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

The mission aimed to collect about 2 kg (4.4 pounds) of material using a drill and mechanical arm, according to the CNSA.

Experts had previously told the BBC there was the potential to find new rocks.

“Everyone is very excited that we can take a look at these rocks that no one has seen before,” said Professor John Pernet-Fisher, who specializes in lunar geology at the University of Manchester.

He previously analyzed lunar rocks brought back by the US Apollo mission and previous Chinese missions.

But he says the opportunity to analyze rocks from a completely different area of ​​the Moon could answer fundamental questions about how planets form.

The Moon’s South Pole is the next frontier in lunar missions: Countries are interested in understanding the region because there is a good chance it has ice.

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

This is the second time China has launched a mission to collect samples from the Moon.

In 2020, Chang’e-5 brought back 1.7 kg of material from an area called Oceanus Procellarum on the near side of the Moon.

In 2019, China became the first country to reach the other side with the landing of its Chang’e-4.

China is planning three more uncrewed missions this decade as it searches for water on the Moon and investigates establishing a permanent base there.

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

The United States also aims to return astronauts to the moon, and NASA aims to launch its Artemis-3 mission in 2026.

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