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China plans to launch a unmanned spaceship to the moon this week to bring back lunar rocks, the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from Earth’s natural satellite since the 1970s.
The Chang’e-5 probe, named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, will seek to collect material that can help scientists understand more about the origins and formation of the moon. The mission will test China’s ability to acquire samples remotely from space, before more complex missions.

If successful, the mission will make China the third country to have recovered lunar samples, following the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago.

A file photo of the Chang’e 4 probe lander. Its successor, the Chang’e-5 probe, will make a soft landing on the moon and bring samples to Earth.[Photo/Xinhua/China National Space Administration] (Supplied)

Since the Soviet Union made a forced landing of Luna 2 on the Moon in 1959, the first human-made object to reach another celestial body, a handful of other countries, including Japan and India, have launched lunar missions.

In the Apollo program, which first put men on the Moon, the United States sent 12 astronauts on six flights from 1969 to 1972, bringing back 382 kg of rocks and soil.

The Soviet Union deployed three robotic sample return missions in the 1970s.

“The Apollo-Moon sampling zone of the moon, while critical to our knowledge, was conducted in an area that comprises much less than half the lunar surface,” said James Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University in United States.

A file photo of a Long March-5 rocket blasting off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China earlier this year. The rocket is scheduled to launch a new Chinese lunar mission later this week. (AP)

Subsequent data from orbital remote sensing missions have shown a wider diversity of rock types, mineralogies and ages than is represented in the Apollo-Luna sample collections, he said.

“Lunar scientists have been advocating robotic sample return missions to these different critical areas in order to address a number of fundamental questions left over from previous exploration,” said Professor Head.

The Chang’e-5 mission can help answer questions such as how long the moon was volcanically active in its interior and when its magnetic field dissipated, key to protecting any life form from solar radiation.

Once in orbit of the moon, the probe will aim to deploy a pair of vehicles to the surface: a lander will drill into the ground, then transfer its soil and rock samples to an ascendant which will lift off and dock with a module in orbit.

If this is successful, the samples will be transferred to a return capsule that will return them to Earth.

Earth seen from the Moon.
China will attempt the first recovery of lunar samples from the lunar surface since the 1970s. (POT)

China made its first lunar landing in 2013. In January 2019, the Chang’e-4 probe landed on the opposite side of the moon, the first ever made by a space probe from any nation.

In the next decade, China plans to establish a robotic base station to conduct unmanned exploration in the South Pole region.

It will run through the Chang’e-6 missions 7 and 8 through the 2020s and will extend into the 2030s before manned landings.

China plans to recover samples from Mars by 2030.

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