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China prepares to launch Chang'e-5 Moon probe to bring back lunar rocks

If successful, China will become only the third country—after the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union—to have retrieved samples from the Moon

In this 17 November photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a Long March-5 rocket is seen on the launch pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province. Chinese technicians were making final preparations on 23 November to launch a Long March-5 rocket carrying a mission to bring back material from the lunar surface in a potentially major advance for the country's space program. (Guo Cheng/Xinhua via AP) (AP)

China is preparing to launch an unmanned spacecraft on 24 November to bring back lunar rocks, the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from the Moon in four decades.

Beijing is pouring billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and of eventually sending humans to the Moon.

The Chang'e-5 probe, named after the mythical Chinese Moon goddess, aims to shovel up lunar rocks and soil to help scientists learn about the Moon's origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface. The mission is set to take off from the Wenchang Space Center on the southern island province of Hainan, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) said on its WeChat social media account that the launch was planned for between 4.00am and 5.00am Tuesday (8pm GMT and 9pm GMT, Monday). The original mission, planned for 2017, was delayed due to an engine failure in China's Long March 5 launch rocket.

If successful, China will be only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, following the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. Between 1969 and 1972, the US' Apollo programme saw 12 astronauts land on the Moon's surface. According to US space agency Nasa, the six missions that landed on the Moon brought back close to 400 kg of lunar samples.

Lunar samples not only offer a wealth of data for scientists to understand more about the Moon's origin and composition, but will also be key in future plans of building human habitats on the lunar surface. Using resources that are already available on the Moon will be important in planning future long-term space missions.

The Chinese probe will collect 2kg of surface material in a previously unexplored area known as Oceanus Procellarum—or "Ocean of Storms"—which consist of a vast lava plain, according to the science journal Nature. If successfully launched, the probe is expected to land on the Moon in late November and collect material during one lunar day, which is equivalent to around 14 Earth days.

The samples will be returned to Earth in a capsule programmed to land in northern China's Inner Mongolia region in early December, according to Nasa.

The mission is technically challenging and involves several innovations not seen during previous attempts at collecting Moon rocks, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

"The US never did a robotic sample return. The Soviet one was very limited and could only land at certain restricted spots," McDowell told AFP.

"China's system will be the most flexible and capable robotic sample return system yet."

A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019, in a global first that boosted Beijing's ambitions to become a space superpower. It was the second Chinese probe to land on the Moon, following the Yutu ("Jade Rabbit") rover mission in 2013.

The latest Chang'e-5 probe is among a slew of ambitious targets set by Beijing, which include creating a super-powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those Nasa and private rocket firm SpaceX can handle, a Moon base, a permanently crewed space station, and a Mars rover. (AFP)

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