China races against time to collect lunar samples after Chang’e-6 lands on Moon’s far side

Window of only 14 hours to gather samples due to limited communication with spacecraft

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A Chinese spacecraft has successfully landed on the Moon’s far side but engineers now face a race against time to collect and return precious samples to Earth.

The Chang’e-6 lander touched down at the South Pole-Aitken (Spa) Basin at 6.23am, Beijing time, on June 2 (2.23am GST), with a small window of only 14 hours to retrieve samples due to limited communication with the vehicle.

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

Samples may have been collected already but the China National Space Administration has not yet confirmed this.

“Due to the Moon's obstruction, the Earth-Moon communication window period on the far side of the Moon, even with the help of the Queqiao-2 relay satellite service, is still shorter than that on the near side,” China’s state news agency Xinhua reported.

“Therefore, the sampling time of Chang'e-6 will be reduced to about 14 hours, compared with the 22 hours used by its predecessor Chang'e-5.”

The mission, which began on May 3, is to last for 53 days, with the craft scheduled to land back on Earth in last week of June.

This is the country’s fourth successful lunar landing since 2013 and second landing on the far side of the Moon.

Retrieving samples

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

Now that the lander has touched down, it will drill into the soil and use its robotic arm to collect rocks and soil.

Engineers have programmed the vehicle to “execute instructions and judgments autonomously” so it will not have to rely on real-time communication from ground control.

It is equipped with sensors that measure speed, distances and any obstacles during the sample retrieval process.

During the Chang'e-5 sample return mission in 2020, for example, ground control had to send the vehicle 1,000 commands, while this latest mission requires only 400 because it is mostly automated.

Once collected, the samples will be transferred to the ascent vehicle, which will be launched from the lunar surface and dock with the orbiter.

Emerging space power

By bringing back samples from the Moon’s far side, scientists hope to gain new insights into the Moon’s history and composition.

These samples could reveal information about the Spa Basin, one of the largest and oldest impact craters in the solar system, offering clues about the early solar system’s processes.

The mission also reflects China’s growing capabilities and ambitions in space exploration.

Over the past two decades, China has made significant progress, from its first astronaut entering space to building its own space station, Tiangong.

Chang’e-6 is part of China’s broader lunar exploration programme, which could pave the way for future crewed missions to the Moon. China hopes to land a human on the lunar surface by 2030.

China hopes the mission will provide valuable experience and data, setting the stage for more complex endeavours, including potential lunar bases and further exploration of the Moon.

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.

Updated: June 03, 2024, 1:27 PM