China has launched a mission to the
moon to retrieve lunar rocks – the first mission of its kind since the USSR in
Monday’s successful launch was China’s 35th this year, as it cements its title as a ‘space-superpower’.
Launched off Hainan Island’s Wenchang Space Site, the mission, named Chang’e-5, is the nation’s ambitious effort to create an international research base on the moon and eventually establish a human colony in the next two decades.
If the Chang’e-5 mission is successful, it will be only the third ever journey to the moon where lunar dirt has been returned to earth. Neil Armstrong and crew famously brought back 842 pounds of lunar soil during the Apollo 17 mission – much of the mammoth-sized sample is still being studied to this day.
The Soviet Union, not to be outdone
by NASA and the United States, collected a sample of their own four years later
in 1976. Both soil samples have made tremendous contributions to science and
the Chang’e-5 mission is no different, stoking interest from the scientific
community at large.
David S. Draper, a deputy chief scientist at NASA, remarked on the swift progress China’s space programme has made. Although Russia and the United States have an almost three-decade headstart in crewed flights, China has caught up. Draper believes the new space superpower is going to provide insight into the workings of our solar system and lunar history.
Chang’e-5’s mission is simple: retrieve around four pounds of lunar specimens from the moon’s volcanic plains, known as Mons Rumker.
Mons Rumker, located on the moon’s near side in the Oceanus Procellarum region, is relatively new geographically compared to the now famed Apollo 17 landing site in the 1970s.
The samples collected more than four decades ago were at least 3.1 billion years old – an ancient area of the lunar surface, pockmarked by meteorite impacts sites.
The Mons Rumker landing site is
comparatively young at around a billion years old, and scientists are keen to
investigate the layers of hardened lava, known as basalt. Its study has ‘implications
beyond the moon’, says James W. Head III, professor of Geological Sciences at
Scientists are hoping intelligence gleaned from the returned rock samples will help calibrate a crater counting technique to establish the ages of different lunar regions.
Scientists are also keen to measure the
levels of elements, such as thorium, in the rocks. Thorium is a radioactive
element present on the lunar surface. Scientists have theorised that high
levels of thorium decaying would produce the heat necessary to create the
volcanic basalt region. Recovering rocks from the Mons Rumker basalt plain will
help to understand the sub-surface nature of the moon and whether the interior
is hot, cold or in another state.
Xiao Long, a planetary geologist at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan and one of the landing site selectors, said because of the vastly different landing site to the Apollo missions, researchers could get ‘new science outcomes’.
The mission is expected to return to inner Mongolia sometime in mid-December.