China mulls sending robotic probe to the moon to retrieve samples

China mulls sending robotic probe to the moon to retrieve samples

Photo provided by the China National Space Administration CNSA shows Chang'e 5 probe collecting samples on the moon on December 2, 2020. PHOTO XINHUA Chinese scientists and engineers are contemplating sending a robotic probe to collect dust and rocks from the far side of the moon, an ambitious endeavor that would likely be a world first, according to a senior space agency official.

Deputy Director of the China National Space Administration, Wu Yanhua said the United States, Russia and China have brought lunar substances back to Earth, but none of them has ever obtained samples from the moon's far side, which never faces Earth.

The administration could use its Chang'e 6 robotic mission to land on the far side and bring samples back, Wu said at a news conference at the administration's headquarters in Beijing over the weekend.

Many scientists both at home and abroad told us that they are eager to bring samples back from the far side because such materials would be very valuable, he said. They will allow scientists to advance their studies about the far side's age. The researchers will analyze the samples' composition to expand the knowledge about the far side. Wu said that the substances brought back by China's Chang'e 5 probe have helped scientists determine there still were volcanic activities on the moon's near side about 2 billion years ago, and materials from the far side would allow them to verify the hypothesis that volcanoes on the far side became inactive about 4 billion years ago.

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It is necessary to have the ability to transmit signals between the far side and the ground control to achieve this goal, according to Wu.

We currently have the Queqiao relay satellite in lunar orbit to transmit signals between the control center and the Yutu 2 rover, but it won't work long enough to support the Chang'e 6 mission. He said that we are considering the feasibility of a signal relay and navigation network above the moon.

China launched five robotic probes in 2004 and has launched five robotic probes since 2007. The fourth in the series, Chang'e 4, landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019, becoming the first spacecraft to closely observe the little known lunar region. Its rover, Yutu 2, has been there for more than 1,000 days and is the longest-operating lunar rover.

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The most recent mission, the Chang'e 5, landed on the moon in December 2020 and brought 1,731 grams of lunar rocks and soil back to Earth. That historic accomplishment came about 44 years after the last lunar substances had been brought back from our nearest celestial neighbor.

Wu Weiren, chief designer of China's lunar exploration program, said last month that Chang'e 6's sister mission, the Chang'e 7 robotic probe, will be deployed to the moon's south pole to search for water and other resources.

Chang'e 7 is set to find traces of ice on the south pole, investigate the environment and weather there, and survey its landforms, he said.