China is sending a probe to collect samples from the less explored far side of the moon

Taipei, Taiwan — China launched a lunar probe on Friday that will land on the far side of the moon and return with samples that could shed light on differences between the less-explored region and the better-known nearby side.

It is the latest advancement in ChinaThe increasingly sophisticated space exploration program, now competing with the United States, is still the leader in space.

China also has a three-person crew on its own orbiting space station and aims to put astronauts on the moon by 2030. Three Chinese lunar probe missions are planned in the next four years.

The somewhat mysterious far side of the moon is free from Earth influences and other disturbances and is ideal for radio astronomy and other scientific work. Since the other side never faces Earth, a relay satellite is required to maintain communications.

The rocket carrying the Chang’e-6 lunar probe – named after the mythical Chinese moon goddess – took off as planned from the Wenchang launch center in the island province of Hainan on Friday at 5:27 p.m. About 35 minutes later, it completely separated from the giant Long March-5 rocket – China’s largest – that had launched it into space, as technicians monitoring the launch from ground control smiled and applauded.

Moments later, launch mission commander Zhang Zuosheng stepped to a podium at the front of the room and said the launch had gone exactly as planned and the spacecraft was on its designated trajectory. “I declare this launch mission a complete success,” Zhang said to more applause.

The Philippine space agency issued a statement saying expected debris from the rocket launch was “expected to have fallen into the identified drop zones.”

China was forced to defend its handling of a rocket engine that burned up over the Indian Ocean in 2021 after the American space agency’s administrator and others accused Beijing of acting recklessly by allowing its rocket to fall to Earth seemingly uncontrollably after the mission.

Huge crowds packed Hainan’s beaches to watch the launch, which comes in the middle of China’s five-day May Day holiday. As with previous launches in recent times, the event was televised live by state broadcaster CCTV.

After orbiting the moon to reduce speed, the lander will separate from the spacecraft and begin drilling into the lunar surface and collecting samples with its robotic arm within 48 hours of touchdown. Once the samples are sealed in a container, it is then reconnected to the returner for the journey back to Earth. The entire mission is expected to last 53 days.

In 2020, China sent back samples from the far side of the moon, the first time since the former Soviet Union in 1976. Analysis of the samples found that they contained water in tiny beads embedded in the lunar dirt.

Also last week, three Chinese astronauts returned home from a six-month mission on the country’s orbiting space station following the arrival of their replacement crew.

China built its own space station after being excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. concerns about the Chinese military’s complete control of the space program amid intensifying technological competition between the two geopolitical rivals. U.S. law prohibits almost all cooperation between the U.S. and Chinese space programs without express approval from Congress.

Given these limitations, China has expanded cooperation with other countries and authorities. The latest mission carries scientific instruments from France, Italy and the European Space Agency in collaboration with Sweden. There is also a small Pakistani satellite on board.

China’s ambitious space program aims to send astronauts to the moon by 2030, bring back samples from Mars around the same year and launch three lunar probe missions in the next four years. Next is the 2027 schedule.

Longer-term plans call for a permanent manned base on the lunar surface, but this appears to still be in the concept phase.

China carried out its first manned space mission in 2003, making it the third country, after the former Soviet Union and the United States, to launch a human into space using its own resources.

The three-module Tiangong, much smaller than the ISS, was launched in 2021 and completed 18 months later. It can accommodate up to six astronauts at a time and is primarily dedicated to scientific research. The crew will also install space debris protection equipment, conduct payload experiments and broadcast science lessons to students on Earth.

China has also said it eventually plans to allow foreign astronauts and space tourists access to its space station. As the ISS nears the end of its useful life, China could eventually become the only country or company to maintain a manned station in orbit.

The U.S. space program is still believed to have a significant lead over China’s due to its spending, supply chains and capabilities.

The USA does not want to bring astronauts back to the lunar surface until 2026 at the earliest. However, this time NASA is working with private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, which will provide the landers for the astronauts.

They plan to land on the moon’s south pole, where permanently shadowed craters are believed to be filled with frozen water.


This story has been corrected to reflect the correct date of the next U.S. manned lunar mission and the last time lunar samples were returned before 2020.

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