Rocks from the far side of the Moon landed in Mongolia on Tuesday

Enlarge / This photo taken on June 25, 2024 shows the return capsule recovery site of the Chang’e-6 probe in Siziwang Banner, north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Xinhua/Lian Zhen

A small spacecraft landed in Inner Mongolia on Tuesday and brought samples from the far side of the Moon to Earth.

This was not China’s first robotic mission to return a few pounds of dust and pebbles from the lunar surface; It arrived with the Chang’e 5 mission in December 2020. However, this was the first time that a space program in the world returned material from the far side of the Moon.

The successful conclusion of this mission, which launched from Earth almost two months ago, marked another significant achievement for China’s space program, as the country aims to land humans on the Moon by 2030.

Answering scientific questions

This complex mission, consisting of an orbiter, a lander, an ascent vehicle and a return spacecraft, was launched on May 3. Although the Chang’e 6 mission consisted of similar elements to the Chang’e 5 lunar return mission three and a half years ago, the challenge of operating on the far side of the Moon is that there is no direct communication with Earth. This required the launch and operation of a relief spacecraft.

Scientists are very intrigued by the opportunity to study the far side of the lunar surface, which differs significantly from the near side in terms of crustal thickness, volcanic activity and composition.

“The CE-6 samples, the first obtained from the far side of the Moon, are expected to answer one of the most fundamental scientific questions in lunar scientific research: what geological activity is responsible for the differences between the two sides? ” Zongyu Yue, a geologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said recently.

The race is on

Beyond scientific research, however, the mission has significance for the emerging race between China and the United States to build international coalitions to explore and eventually build outposts on the surface of the Moon. With the Chang’e program, which will soon focus its attention on the south pole of the Moon, China has demonstrated the seriousness of its intention and validated its technical approach.

Of course, it’s a big leap to go from small robotic missions to human landings. But China has also recently tested the core stage of the rocket, Long March 10, which will take humans to the Moon. It is also working on a spacecraft and lunar lander similar in range to what NASA did with the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s.

While China has taken a 100 percent government-led approach to returning to the Moon, NASA is working extensively with commercial partners such as SpaceX and Axiom Space to develop a lunar lander and spacesuits for its Artemis program. This process creates more uncertainty, but NASA’s hope is that working with private companies will ultimately reduce the cost of lunar exploration and make its deep space program more sustainable in the long term.

The race, especially as China racks up successful milestones like returning samples from the far side of the Moon, is definitely on.

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