ExplainerThe bold ambitions behind China’s Chang’e 5 moon mission
- Latest lunar expedition is a milestone for the Chinese space programme and has reignited a long-dormant race for the stars
- Part of the samples from the moon’s surface will be kept in Mao Zedong’s home province, in his honour
What is the Chang’e programme and what are its aims?
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched the Chang’e space programme in 2003 with four phases announced so far. Its first two missions, in 2007 and 2010, orbited the moon.
The latest mission – Chang’e 5 – marks the third phase of China’s space programme, to send a craft to the surface to collect samples and return with them to Earth.
In the programme’s next phase, the CNSA will focus on the moon’s south pole, with the eventual aim of setting up a research base. Chang’e 6 will retrieve more samples, Chang’e 7 will fully explore the site, and Chang’e 8 will be used to experiment with some key technologies, in preparation for a base.
What will the Chang’e 5 do next?
The Chang’e 5 has four modules: a lander to touch down on the lunar surface, carrying an ascending vehicle, while the main craft remains in orbit with the return capsule.
Over the course of 14 days – equivalent to two lunar days – the landing craft will collect rock samples from a depth of two metres, using a drill, while a robotic arm takes samples from the surface. The ascending vehicle will take the samples into orbit and dock with the orbiter.
China's Chang'e 5 moon mission makes a lunar touchdown, ready to collect rocks and soil
The next stage will be the reignition of the engines to begin the orbiter’s journey back to Earth. The re-entry capsule will separate from the orbiter while still a few thousand kilometres away and “glide” on top of the atmosphere towards a prepared landing range in China’s Inner Mongolia region.
The re-entry capsule is expected to return in mid-December with a total of 2kg of samples. The other modules will be jettisoned after use.
What is the significance of the lunar samples?
Analysis of the samples could provide important information about the history and evolution of both the moon and the Earth, as well as the potential for development on our nearest celestial neighbour.
The landing area for the Chang’e 5 – the Oceanus Procellarum or “Ocean of Storms” – has a younger rock surface, with relatively recent volcanic features from just 1.2 billion years ago. This means the samples could reveal information about the moon’s recent history.
Previous lunar samples collected by the Americans and the Soviets came from older regions.
This will be the first opportunity for Chinese scientists to study samples from the moon since 1978, when the US government gave 1g from its 382kg collection to China on the eve of the establishment of official diplomatic relations.
Scientists are reported to have used half of the gift from the US for research. The remainder is the only lunar sample in China so far.
Chief designer of the Chang’e programme Wu Weiren said that part of the lunar soil retrieved by Chang’e 5 would be stored in Hunan, home province of Mao Zedong.
“Chairman Mao said in a poem ‘we can clasp the moon in the ninth heaven’, and now we’ve made it come true,” Wu said. “To put some lunar soil in Hunan is an acknowledgement to him.”
China space control juggling with at least three space missions since Chang’e 5 launch
What is the significance of the Chang’e programme?
The programme shows China’s ambition to become a space superpower. The technologies used in the Chang’e 5 are the most complex and advanced to be used in lunar exploration, compared to the US and Soviet Union missions decades ago.
The CNSA is also building its own permanent space station, which it expects to launch next year.
The progress of the Chang’e missions and other Chinese explorations also seem to have revived a space race which has been on a long pause since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Soon after the success of Chang’e 4 in 2019, the US government announced that Nasa’s next lunar programme would land the first woman – and another man – on the moon in 2024, 52 years since its last Apollo mission in 1972.
The CNSA and Nasa are already on a race to Mars, with the Chinese Tianwen-1 and US Perseverance launched just one week apart this summer.
Who is Chang’e?
China’s lunar exploration programme is named after the Chinese goddess of the moon. Lunar surface rovers deployed in its third and fourth missions were called Yutu and Yutu 2 – which means “jade rabbit” and refers to the goddess’ pet rabbit, which is said to live with her on the moon.
Similarly, the Nasa programme is called Artemis, after the moon goddess of Greek mythology. Her twin brother Apollo’s name was given to the US lunar missions.