After a historic soft landing by Chang’e-4, a Chinese lunar probe, on the moon’s far side at the beginning of the year, the Earth’s natural satellite can expect to see another probe from China, Chang’e-5, by the end of 2019.

While Chang’e-4 and the Yutu, its lunar rover, will stay permanently on the lunar hemisphere that faces away from Earth after their mission, a sample-return vehicle on board Chang’e-5 will make a return trip to China in December.

It aims to return no less than 2 kilograms of lunar soil and rock samples – from 2 meters below the surface of the Mons Rümker volcanic formation in the northwestern region of the moon’s near side – back to Earth. This will be mankind’s first lunar-sample-return mission in over four decades after the former Soviet Union’s Luna 24 project in 1976, which collected and returned 170 grams of lunar samples.

The lander of Chang’e-5 will be equipped with a robotic arm, a rotary-percussive drill, and a scoop for sampling, as well as separation tubes to isolate individual samples, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

The lander will place samples in an attached ascent vehicle and catapult it back into the lunar orbit for an automatic rendezvous and docking with an orbiter there, and the latter will then transfer the samples into a sample-return capsule for the journey to Earth.

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A rendering illustrating the rendezvous of an ascent vehicle and a sample-return capsule in the lunar orbit. Photo: Handout
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A model of the Chang’e-5 probe on display in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

Chang’e-5 will also carry a host of equipment and sensors, including high-powered ultra-high-resolution cameras, a mineral spectrometer, a soil-gas analytical instrument, a soil-composition analytical instrument, a sampling sectional thermo-detector, and a ground-penetrating radar.

The program aims to facilitate a crewed lunar landing by taikonauts in the 2030s, as part of the Chinese version of Project Apollo, and possibly build a Chinese outpost near the moon’s south pole.

Chang’e-6 will conduct a similar sample-return mission to its predecessor, but possibly from the far side.

Chang’e-7 and 8 will explore the moon more extensively and install an unmanned lunar research base.

A CNSA deputy director told Xinhua that some pieces of equipment from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration may also hitch a ride on Chang’e-5, as Beijing and Washington have always been in talks about cooperation in lunar and deep space exploration.

NASA is particularly interested in knowing how dust will move when Chinese probes land on the moon, the official was quoted as saying.

He revealed that China offered the landing schedule and location of Chang’e-4 to the US Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter for the satellite’s observation as it passed above the Chinese probe this week.

Read more: So far so good for Chinese lunar probe

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