China launches its first ever mission to bring moon rocks back to Earth

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China launched its Chang’e 5 mission to the moon early Tuesday morning local time from the country’s launch site on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The country is seeking to bring soil and rock samples from the lunar surface back to Earth for the first time in its history, for scientific study. 

What’s going to happen: Chang’e 5 should make it to the moon on November 27. The entire mission consists of four parts: an orbiter, a lander, an ascent stage, and a return capsule. The spacecraft are not equipped with any heating units to help the onboard electronics withstand the super-cold temperatures of the lunar night. That means the mission must collect its sample and start heading back to Earth within 14 days (the length of the lunar day). 

Tell me more: The lander will make its way down to the surface of the moon at a site close to Mons Rümker, a volcanic formation in the Oceanus Procellarum region that lies on the western edge of the near side of the moon. The lander will seek to scoop up at least four pounds of lunar soil from the surface. It will first drill about 6.5 feet into the ground and collect a core of lunar soil from below the surface. Then a robotic arm will grab soil from the surface itself. A near-infrared spectrometer and ground-penetrating radar will help Chang’e 5 analyze some of the soil while still on the ground, as well as ensuring that it avoids heavy or hazardous rocks. 

Once the material is scooped up, the sample will be stored onto an ascent vehicle that will ferry it back to the orbiter flying above. The orbiter will then place the sample into a return capsule that should get back to Earth by December 17 and land somewhere in Inner Mongolia. 

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