Chang’e 5 blasts off on a Long March 5 heavy lift rocket from Wenchang Space Launch Center on Nov. 23. Credit: CNSA/CAS

China is on track to return to Earth the first lunar surface samples in more than four decades. On Nov. 23, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched its largest probe yet, Chang’e-5, with the objective of retrieving two kilograms of Moon rock and soil. Named after the Chinese moon goddess, the probe includes a lander-ascender module and Earth re-entry capsule. The lander-ascender touched down on Dec. 1 at Mons Rümker, a mound located in Oceanus Procellarum (the Ocean of Storms)—a dark-grey region in the northwest corner of the Moon.

China is on track to return to Earth the first lunar surface samples in more than four decades. On Nov. 23, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched its largest probe yet, Chang’e-5, with the objective of retrieving two kilograms of Moon rock and soil. Named after the Chinese moon goddess, the probe includes a lander-ascender module and Earth re-entry capsule. The lander-ascender touched down on Dec. 1 at Mons Rümker, a mound located in Oceanus Procellarum (the Ocean of Storms)—a dark-grey region in the northwest corner of the Moon.

Chang’e-5’s landing site is expected to be composed of rock and soil that are some 1.2 billion years old—much younger than the 3 to 4 billion-year-old samples NASA’s Apollo astronauts retrieved. The lander will drill two meters beneath the surface for rock, aided by a robotic arm to gather surface soil.

Chang’e 5’s mission profile involves several steps to retrieve samples from the lunar surface. Credit: The Planetary Society.

Once these samples are successfully returned to lunar orbit and transferred to the Earth re-entry vehicle, the lander will remain on the surface to capture data on the topography, geological composition and sub-surface structures present at the landing site.

China has stated that back on Earth, the lunar samples will be available for study by researchers around the world. Scientists are excited about examining rock that formed relatively late in the Moon’s geological timeline. Knowing the Moon’s history will also broaden our understanding of Earth’s formation and the other bodies in our solar system. Chang’e 5 is also a test for China’s space engineering prowess, demonstrating autonomous lunar sampling, moon-based launching and lunar orbital docking. The mission support’s China’s longer-term goals for future human missions to the Moon and beyond.

Chang’e-5’s mission is scheduled to last about 23 days, returning to Earth on Dec. 16 or 17. It will be the first spacecraft to bring back lunar material since the former Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. If successful, China will be the third nation to capture lunar rock, following the U.S. and the Soviet Union.