Science & Technology

China’s moon mission gathers steam as probe returns with samples

By Jesús Centeno

Beijing, Jan 21 (efe-epa).- China Chang’e lunar mission, named after a mythological moon goddess, took a big step in December after landing on the moon and bringing back samples of lunar rock, with authorities promising to share them with scientists from other countries.

The unmanned space probe Chang’e 5 returned to earth on Dec.17 with nearly two kilograms of lunar samples, making China the third country to complete this feat after the United States and the former Soviet Union that accomplished it in 1976.

Chinese scientists explained this week in a media event that the material would help knowing more about the moon, for example, its exact age.

That is why the probe was programmed to land in northern Mons Rümker, an elevated area in the Oceanus Procellarum, on the visible side of the moon.

The area is uncharted as yet.

The samples were collected from two different spots. On the surface moon using a robotic arm, and underground, drilling two meters down to obtain samples that could date from much earlier periods.

After landing on earth, the capsule was flown to Beijing with a cylindrical container carrying the samples.

However, Pei Zhaoyu, the deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), admitted that the probe had bought only 1,731 grams of material instead of the planned 2 kg.

He said the probe was expected to excavate for 22 hours but was stopped after 12 as scientists estimated the collected quantity of material to be sufficient given the density of the rocks, although acknowledging that this “may not have been as high as we thought.”

According to Pei, 80 percent of the samples would be for research – with the remaining 20 percent stored.

Pei said China would share them with “scientists across the world” for up to six months, although no requests from abroad were received so far.

The mission’s success has also been a source of pride: the probe also displayed the Chinese flag on the lunar surface, making the Asian country only the second nation to do so.

Pei said that the moon was the property of entire humanity and as a global power, China had “the responsibility to explore it,” adding that even though other countries had achieved brilliant results from their programs, one couldn’t remain depending on others.

China’s progress in space has been met with suspicion by Washington, which has been involved in multiple disputes with Beijing that intensified during the just-ended term of former US President Donald Trump.

In 2019, a US commission claimed that the “Chinese space dream” was not about exploration but aimed at dominating, and therefore Beijing was investing enormous amounts of money in the project.

Pei did not elaborate on the costs of the latest mission and simply commented that China had not restricted cooperation with any country.

On the other hand, American laws prevent NASA from directly collaborating with Beijing.

The Chinese official highlighted that for the Chang’e 5 mission, China had collaborated with institutions such as the European Space Agency, and through it, with the Spanish ground tracking station at Maspalomas, operated by Spain’s National Institute for Aerospace Technology.

The Chinese mission also collaborated with Argentina in the field of telemetry, tracking, and control (TT&C), as confirmed to EFE by Sabino Vaca Narvaja, Buenos Aires’ special representative in China for trade and investment promotion, after he received a commemoration on behalf of the Argentine National Space Activities Commission.

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