China just did what only two other countries have ever done before

  • China’s Chang’e 5 mission to the Moon rapidly accomplished the lofty goal of obtaining Moon rock samples and lifting them off of the lunar surface.
  • Now, the samples have made their way back to Earth, and Chinese scientists will be studying their own Moon rocks for the very first time. 
  • Before China, only the United States and Russia had successfully retrieved rocks from the Moon, with the US being the only country to do so using a crewed mission.

China has moved at breakneck speed with its Chang’e 5 mission to the Moon. The Chinese space agency landed its hardware on the Moon on December 1st, and the four-part spacecraft performed exactly as expected, with the lander collecting lunar surface material and transferring it to the “ascender” unit.

Now, roughly two weeks after the mission arrived at the Moon, those precious lunar samples have arrived on Earth. China’s state-run media announced that the returner spacecraft had delivered the sample capsule to its landing site in Inner Mongolia in the early morning hours of Thursday, completing an incredible mission and accomplishing something that only the United States and Russia have done before.

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To say that the mission moved rapidly is a huge understatement. The four-part Chang’e 5 spacecraft consisted of a lander, ascender, orbiter, and returner, and all of those pieces of high-tech space hardware had to work in harmony for the mission to be a success.

The lander and ascender made a soft touchdown on the Moon and after the samples were gathered and transferred to the ascender, the ascender took off from the Moon’s surface and rendezvoused with the orbiter. The sample capsule was then transferred to the returner, which was attached to the orbiter. The returner then spent a few days waiting for the right time to head back to Earth before taking off and eventually delivering its precious payload to China’s doorstep. This all happened in the span of about two weeks.

Despite the ease with which China appeared to complete the mission, it’s hardly a routine venture. In fact, it’s been over 40 years since the last lunar samples were returned. That mission, launched by the former Soviet Union, used the country’s Luna 24 probe to obtain the lunar samples and eventually get them back to Earth.

China has made it clear multiple times that it wishes to be taken seriously as a superpower in space. The country launched a mission to Mars at around the same time as NASA’s Perseverance rover took off from Earth, and China has stood toe-to-toe with the likes of Russia and the US when it comes to developing systems to support life during space missions. Going forward, it’ll be interesting to see what steps China takes in terms of Moon exploration, as the country has already discussed the possibility of crewed missions to the Moon and perhaps even construction projects on its surface.

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