- China landed a spacecraft on the moon Tuesday as part of its rock-collecting mission, Chang'e-5.
- The probe is set to drill rock samples and send them back to Earth by mid-December.
- If successful, it will be the first time a country has brought home moon rocks in more than 40 years.
- China's space agency released video of the landing on Wednesday.
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China landed a rock-collecting spacecraft on the moon on Tuesday, the latest in a series of ambitious lunar missions.
The lander is one of four robots in a mission called Chang'e-5, which aims to send a sample of the lunar surface to Earth before the end of 2020. If successful, it will be the first time a country has brought home moon rock in more than 40 years.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) abruptly cut off its live coverage about a half hour before its scheduled landing at 10:13 a.m. ET on Tuesday. But the agency later announced that the spacecraft had touched down at 10:11 a.m. ET.
On Wednesday, a state-run media organization, China Xinhua News, released sped-up footage of the probe executing a gentle landing on the pockmarked lunar surface.
As it descended, the probe took pictures of its landing site and sent them to computers on Earth, so engineers could help it maneuver around any large rocks or other hazards on the surface. Its engine cut off several meters above the surface, allowing it to make a slow, gentle landing.
The first time collecting moon rocks since 1976
The lander's robotic arm is programmed to drill about 6 feet into the lunar surface to collect 4.4 pounds of lunar rock and dust from a previously unexplored region: a volcanic plain called Mons Rümker. The material could provide new information about the moon's past volcanic activity.
The robotic arm should then transfer the sample to an ascent module sitting on top of the lander. With the sample secure, that module should lift off to rendezvous with the mission's orbiter, which is currently circling the moon with its Earth-reentry module in tow. If all goes well, the trio of robots will then return to Earth with their moon rock prize, which is set to land in Inner Mongolia in mid-December.
"This is a really audacious mission," David Draper, the deputy chief scientist at NASA, told the New York Times. "They're going to move the ball down the field in a big way with respect to understanding a lot of things that are important about lunar history."
For one, the samples could show that the moon displayed volcanic activity as recently as 1.2 billion years ago – a discovery that could "rewrite the history of the moon," Xiao Long, a planetary geologist at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, told Nature in November.
So far, scientists have only been able to study moon rock samples from lunar regions that are at least 3 billion years old, so their knowledge of the moon's volcanic activity ends around then.
The last time any country collected lunar rocks was in 1976, when the Soviet Union's last Luna mission returned to Earth.
NASA and China are racing to land humans on the moon
The Chang'e-5 mission launched early on November 24, local time, from China's Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.
It's the sixth in a series of ambitious missions by China to explore the moon, which could potentially lead to the building of a human settlement there.
This is the third time that CNSA has landed a robot on the lunar surface. The agency now has seven spacecraft operating on the moon or in its orbit, according to SpaceNews correspondent Andrew Jones.
NASA has similar ambitions to establish a permanent lunar base, but it has not yet launched the precursor moon missions needed to reach that goal. The agency hasn't landed anything on the moon since 1972.
However, NASA and Elon Musk's space-exploration company SpaceX successfully sent two astronaut crews to the International Space Station this year, marking the first time the US has launched astronauts since 2011. The missions have paved the way for landing humans on the moon again, which NASA aims to do in 2024.
The agency also plans to send its first rover to the moon's south pole to map out ice reserves in 2023.
Dave Mosher contributed reporting.
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