China is set to launch an unmanned spacecraft this week which will land on the surface of the Moon and search for lunar rocks.
If the Chang’e-5 mission is successful, China will be the third nation after the United States and the former Soviet Union to bring back samples of the Moon – and the first since the 1970s.
The China National Space Administration and state media have not announced the day and time of the launch from Hainan island in south China, but previously said it would take place in “late November”.
Bringing back moon rocks would be a further symbolic coup for China’s space industry. The ruling Communist Party has emphasised its space ambitions, which it sees as a symbol of national pride and China’s growing strength.
China carried out its first crewed space mission in 2003 and landed a rover on the Moon in 2013, which was the first time any country had soft landed anything on the moon in nearly 40 years.
Last year, it achieved the feat of becoming the first nation to land a space probe on the far side of the moon, which can’t be seen from Earth.
Its eventual goal is to land an astronaut on the Moon.
While its military-backed space programme has made progress in a relatively short time, China’s space achievements still lag far behind those of the United States and Russia.
In 1959, the Soviet Union’s Luna 2 became the first human-made object to touch the Moon. Ten years later, the U.S. Apollo programme began landing men on the Moon. They brought back almost 400 kilograms of rocks and soil.
The last Soviet Union mission to bring back moon samples was the Luna 24 in 1976. It brought back 170 grams.
China’s Chang’e-5 probe will attempt to collect 2 kilograms of samples from a previously unvisited area on the near side of the Moon.
Scientists back on Earth would be able to study the rocks to learn more about how the moon formed.
If all it goes according to plan, the Chang’e-5 probe – named after the Chinese goddess of the Moon – will first orbit the moon.
It will then deploy a lander, which will drill into the surface to collect rocks, and use a mechanical arm to pick up soil. It will transfer these samples to another vehicle, which will lift off, dock with an orbiting module, and transfer the samples to a capsule that will return to Earth.
The mission will also test how successfully China can remotely take samples from space. China plans to retrieve samples from Mars within the next 10 years.