China prepares to land its Chang’e-6 vehicle on Moon's far side to bring back samples

If successful, the country would become the first to bring back samples from the lunar face hidden from Earth

A Long March 5 rocket, carrying the Chang'e-6 mission lunar probe, at the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern China's Hainan Province on May 3. AFP
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China is preparing to land its Chang'e-6 vehicle on the far side of the Moon this weekend, with the aim of collecting and returning samples.

The mission, which follows the success of Chang'e-5 in 2020, aims to continue China's exploration and scientific research of the Moon, potentially setting the stage for future crewed lunar missions.

The landing attempt is expected to take place on June 2, 4am GST (June 2, 12am UTC), according to the European Space Agency, which has a payload on the vehicle, as reported by on Wednesday.

If successful, China will become the first country to bring back samples from the Moon's far side – the side hidden from Earth – which remains a largely unexplored territory.

“Chang'e-6 is a very ambitious mission that China is well prepared to accomplish given their history with similar missions,” Laura Forczyk, author and founder of space consulting firm Astralytical, told The National.

“With the success of previous Chang'e missions, China has a strong track record with its lunar exploration efforts.”

The vehicle, which entered lunar orbit on May 8, will target the South Pole-Aitken Basin, one of the largest and oldest impact craters in the Solar System.

Scientists believe that samples from this region could provide critical insights into the Moon's composition and history, as well as the broader processes that have shaped the early solar system.

Complex sample return mission

The Chang'e-6 vehicle consists of four modules: an orbiter, a lander, an ascent vehicle and a return capsule.

The lander will touch down on the lunar surface and drill into the soil to collect samples.

These samples will be transferred to the ascent vehicle, which will launch from the lunar surface and dock with the orbiter.

The return capsule will then separate from the orbiter and re-enter Earth's atmosphere, delivering the cargo to Siziwangqi, Inner Mongolia.

Long-distance call

One of the key challenges for Chang'e-6 is the communication infrastructure needed to support operations on the far side of the Moon.

Unlike the near side, which faces Earth and allows for direct communication, the far side requires a relay satellite to transmit signals between the lander and mission control.

China has already deployed the Queqiao relay satellite, which has been in orbit around the Moon since 2018, to facilitate this critical communication link.

"The recent launch of the Queqiao lunar relay satellite adds to the likelihood that China will succeed with this lunar far-side mission," said Ms Forczyk.

Thriving space sector

While this mission shows China’s engineering capabilities, it is also a reflection of the country’s growing ambitions in space.

Over the past two decades, China has made significant strides in its space programme, from launching its first astronaut into space in 2003 to building its own space station, Tiangong.

The country has also sent an orbiter to Mars and landed a rover on the Martian surface.

Chang’e-6 is part of China's expanding lunar exploration programme, which began in 2007 with the launch of Chang'e-1.

Over the years, the Chang'e missions have advanced in complexity and scope.

Chang'e-5 marked a significant milestone as it successfully collected and returned samples from the Moon's near side, making China the third country to achieve this feat after the US and the former Soviet Union.

Nasa administrator Bill Nelson has expressed concern that China could reach the Moon before the US and claim ownership of the territory, and said the country has been “very secretive” about its progress in space.

The US also has ambitious Moon exploration plans and hopes to land humans there within this decade. Both the US and China want to explore the south pole region.

China was once known to pursue its space activities independently, with limited collaboration from international players.

But it is now opening up to more foreign partnerships, with miniature satellites from Pakistan, Sweden, France and Italy carried as payloads on the Chang'e-6 vehicle.

Nasa is not allowed to co-operate with China because of the Wolf Amendment, a 2011 US law that aims to protect national security and prevent the transfer of sensitive technology.

Updated: May 29, 2024, 11:09 AM