Chang'e-6: China to launch mission that will return soil samples from Moon's dark side

It would be the first time samples are brought back from the side hidden from Earth

The Chang'e 6 lunar probe and the Long March-5 Y8 carrier rocket combination sit atop the launch pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in Hainan province, China. Reuters
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China is preparing to launch a vehicle that would land on the Moon's dark side and then bring back soil samples.

The rocket for the Chang'e-6 mission was moved to the launch pad on Saturday for a blast off in early May, according to China's state news agency Xinhua. Some reports say that the date is May 3.

The mission will also carry technologies from Pakistan, Sweden, Italy and France.

“Like Chang'e 5, its predecessor, the Chang'e 6 spacecraft consists of four components – an orbiter, a lander, an ascender and a re-entry module,” the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said earlier this year.

“After the probe reaches lunar orbit, the components will separate into two parts, with the orbiter and re-entry module remaining in orbit while the lander and ascender head for the Moon's surface.

“The lander/ascender combination will make a soft landing and then start using a drill and a mechanical arm to gather lunar rocks and soil.”

The ascender rocket would then fly back to the lunar orbit to dock with the re-entry module and transfer the samples, so that it could be carried back to Earth.

If successful, China could become the first country to bring back samples from the Moon's far side – the side hidden from Earth.

China, the US and the former Soviet Union have been successful in the past in returning soil and rock samples from the Moon's near side – the part that faces Earth.

China was the most recent country to achieve the feat when it brought back 1.73kg of soil in 2020 from Oceanus Procellarum, a lunar mare (a flat, dark plain) on the western edge of the Moon.

The country was also the first to ever land a vehicle on the Moon's far side.

“Though the far side had been extensively photographed by spacecraft, starting with a Soviet probe in 1959, no probe had ever touched down on it until China's Chang'e 4 mission, which landed in the Von Karman crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin in January 2019,” the CNSA said.

China is quickly emerging as a global space power, with its new space station called Tiangong that is in low-Earth orbit.

It also launches crewed and uncrewed mission on its domestically-built rockets, and has plans to build a research station on the lunar surface, called the International Lunar Research Station.

It is seeking international partners to develop the project, with Russia, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, South Africa, Venezuela, Belarus and Egypt already signed up.

China hopes to land humans on the lunar surface by the end of this decade.

The US has also renewed interest in exploring the Moon and is developing the Artemis and Lunar Gateway project.

It hopes to send humans back to the Moon within this decade through its Artemis programme.

Both countries are planning to explore the south pole region of the Moon.

During a hearing by the US House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space and Technology in January, congress members said that it was important for their countrymen to be the first ones to land on the Moon.

“I remind my colleagues that we are not the only country interested in sending humans to the Moon,” committee chairman Frank Lucas said.

“The Chinese Communist Party is actively soliciting international partners for a lunar mission – a lunar research station – and has stated its ambition to have human astronauts on the surface by 2030.

“The country that lands first will have the ability to set a precedent for whether future lunar activities are conducted with openness and transparency, or in a more restricted manner.”

Updated: April 30, 2024, 1:47 PM