A Chinese spaceship lifted off the moon with a load of lunar rocks on Thursday evening, the first phase of its return to Earth, the state space agency reported. Chang’e 5, theand the first to take off is the newest in a series of increasing for Beijing’s space program, which also has an orbiter and rover en route to Mars.
Just before the ascent vehicle took off, the lander unfolded what the space administration called the first free-standing Chinese flag on the moon. The agency released a picture – apparently taken from the lander – of the ascending vehicle, which fired its engines upon takeoff.
The spaceship “unfolded the five-star red national flag, a real one made of fabrics that marks a first in the country’s aerospace history.” State media said.
The Chang’e 5 landed on the Sea of Storms on the near side of the moon on Tuesday. His mission: collect about 4 pounds of lunar rock and bring it back to earth. This marks the first return of samples since Soviet spacecraft in the 1970s. Previously, the US Apollo astronauts brought back hundreds of pounds of lunar rocks.
The landing site is near a formation called Mons Rumker and may contain rocks billions of years younger than those previously found.
The ascent vehicle lifted off the moon shortly after 11 p.m. Beijing time (1500 GMT) on Thursday and was supposed to meet with a retrieval vehicle in lunar orbit to then transfer the samples into a capsule, according to the China National Space Administration. The moon rocks and debris were sealed in a special canister to prevent contamination.
It wasn’t clear when the link would take place. After the transfer, the ascent module would be ejected and the capsule would remain in lunar orbit for about a week, waiting for the optimal time to return to Earth.
Chinese officials have said the capsule containing the samples will land on Earth in the middle of the month. Touchdown is slated for the Inner Mongolia grasslands, where China’s astronauts have returned in Shenzhou.
Chang’e 5’s lander, which remained on the moon, was able to scoop samples from the surface and drill 2 meters.
While taking samples was its main task, the lander was also able to extensively photograph the area, map the conditions below the surface with ground penetrating radar, and analyze the lunar soil for minerals and water content.
Chang’e 5 revived the talk that China will one day send astronauts to the moon and possibly build a scientific base there, even though no timetable has been proposed for such projects.
China started its first temporary circulation laboratory in 2011 and a second in 2016. The plan is to set up a permanent space station after 2022, which can possibly be serviced by a reusable spaceplane.
As China intensifies cooperation with the European Space Agency and others, US concerns about the classified nature and close military ties of the Chinese program are severely constraining interactions with NASA. On Tuesday, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s scientific director, tweeted a message of congratulations to China after the spacecraft landed on the moon.
China is taking a step-by-step approach to its lunar program, launching a series of increasingly complex robotic spaceships to develop and test the propulsion, guidance, navigation and landing systems required for long-term exploration.
The Chang’e 1 and 2 missions successfully entered lunar orbit in 2007 and 2010, respectively, followed by the Chang’e 3 lunar runway in 2013 and Chang’e 4, the landed on the other side of the moon Chang’e 5 is the first of two planned sample return missions and China’s most ambitious lunar mission to date.
Bill Harwood contributed to this report.