China plans to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the moon between 4 am and 5 am Beijing time on Tuesday (2000-2100 GMT on Monday), the official Xinhua news agency said, citing information from the country’s National Space Administration.
Chang’e 5 is the country's most ambitious lunar mission yet. If successful, it would be a major advance for China's space program, and some experts said it could pave the way for bringing samples back from Mars or even a crewed lunar mission.
The four modules of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft are expected be sent into space Tuesday aboard a massive Long March-5 rocket from the Wenchang launch center along the coast of the southern island province of Hainan, according to a NASA description of the mission.
The secretive Chinese National Space Administration has only said that a launch is scheduled for late November, although the Lunar Exploration Project said in a statement Monday that success in orbiting, descending and returning would “lay a solid foundation for future missions.”
The mission's key task is to drill 2 meters (almost 7 feet) beneath the moon's surface and scoop up about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rocks and other debris to be brought back to Earth, according to NASA. That would offer the first opportunity to scientists to study newly obtained lunar material since the American and Russian missions of the 1960s and 1970s.
After making the three-day trip from Earth, the Chang’e 5 lander’s time on the moon is scheduled to be short and sweet. It can only stay one lunar daytime, or about 14 Earth days, because it lacks the radioisotope heating units to withstand the moon’s freezing nights, The Associated Press reported.
The lander will dig for materials with its drill and robotic arm and transfer them to what's called an ascender, which will lift off from the moon and dock with the “service capsule.” The materials will then be moved to the return capsule for the trip home to Earth.
The technical complexity of Chang’e 5, with its four components, makes it “remarkable in many ways,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the US Naval War College.
“China is showing itself capable of developing and successfully carrying out sustained high-tech programs, important for regional influence and potentially global partnerships,” she said.
Chang’e 4 — which was the first soft landing on the moon’s relatively unexplored far side almost two years ago — is currently collecting full measurements of radiation exposure from the lunar surface, information vital for any country that plans to send astronauts to the moon.
China in July became one of three countries to have launched a mission to Mars, in China's case an orbiter and a rover that will search for signs of water on the red planet. The CNSA says the spacecraft Tianwen 1 is on course to arrive at Mars around February.