China is hours away from attempting a mission that hasn’t been tried since the end of the space race in the 1970s. Atop its Long March 5Y rocket, China plans to launch a lander to collect lunar soil never seen by researches here on Earth.
The mission is called “Chang’e 5” after the Chinese goddess of the moon. It’s also a continuation of what China has done with Chang’e 1-4 which has focused on learning how to orbit and land on the Moon. Now it is time for China to attempt to return a sample of the lunar surface.
The mission marks the first lunar sample return since the Soviet Union launched its Luna 24 mission in 1976. It’s not actually the surface that China is attempting to sample, however.
China plans to drill down into the Moon’s surface to retrieve its sample. The lander will drill about two meters into the lunar surface before scooping out soil to bring back.
After the sample has been collected, it will be transferred in “the ascender” portion of the lander. Next the lander will rendezvous with the “service capsule” that will move it to the return portion of the spacecraft. China hopes for around 2 kg (4.4 pounds) of material to be returned.
The lander will only be able to survive one lunar day, or about two weeks on Earth, before it will have to launch its lunar sample. The lander can’t survive the extreme cold temperatures that are brought on by lunar night since it does not have a radioisotope heating unit that can last in the darkness.
China’s most daring mission since its first crewed launch back in 2003 is planning to launch between 3 and 4 p.m. EST today. It will launch on the Long March 5Y, a heavy lift launch rocket comparable to a SpaceX Falcon 9 or ULA Delta IV, which is one of China’s most powerful rockets.
The rocket will be lift off from China’s Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Complex on the island of Hainan. This means the rocket will be flying over the South China Sea so there is no concern of China dropping spent stages in populated areas over land — something that has been a factor in recent launches.