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China launches mission to retrieve samples from moon

China launched an ambitious mission on Tuesday to bring back rocks and debris from the moon’s surface for the first time in more than 40 years, an undertaking that could boost human understanding of the moon and of the solar system more generally.

Chang’e 5, named after the Chinese moon goddess, is China’s boldest lunar mission yet. If successful, it would be a major advance for China’s space program, and some experts say it could pave the way for bringing samples back from Mars or even a crewed lunar mission.

The four modules of the Chang’e 5 spacecraft blasted off at just after 4:30am Tuesday. Soon after the liftoff, the spacecraft separated from the rocket’s first and second stages and slipped into Earth-moon transfer orbit. About an hour later, Chang’e 5 opened its solar panels to provide its independent power source.

The Chang’e 5 5 lander’s time on the moon is scheduled to be short. It can only stay one lunar daytime, or about 14 Earth days because it lacks the radioisotope heating units to withstand the moon’s freezing nights.

The lander will dig for materials with its drill and robotic arm and transfer them to an ascender, which will lift off from the moon and dock with the service capsule. The materials will then be moved to the return capsule to be hauled back to Earth.

The technical complexity of Chang’e 5, with its four components, makes it “remarkable in many ways”, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the United States Naval War College.

“China is showing itself capable of developing and successfully carrying out sustained high-tech programs, important for regional influence and potentially global partnerships,” she added.

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