China launches ambitious mission to far side of the moon

The Chang’e 6 lunar probe and its Long March 5 rocket: from Cosmic Curiosity

By Helen Davidson,
Published by The Guardian, 3 May 2024

The launch of the uncrewed Chang’e-6 is part of China’s effort to put a human on the lunar surface by 2030

China has launched a probe to collect samples from the far side of the moon – in a world first – as part of its goal to land a human on the lunar surface by 2030.

A rocket carrying the Chang’e-6 lunar probe blasted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan province just before 5.30 pm (0930 GMT).

The mission has drawn concern from China’s major rival, the US, over Beijing’s geopolitical intentions amid what the head of Nasa has called a new “space race”.

Since the first Chang’e mission in 2007, named after the mythical Chinese moon goddess, China has made leaps forward in its lunar exploration, narrowing the technological chasm with the United States and Russia.

With no direct line of sight with the Earth, Chang’e-6 must rely on a recently deployed relay satellite orbiting the moon during its 53-day mission, including a never-before attempted ascent from the moon’s “hidden” side on its return journey home.

The same relay satellite will support two more uncrewed missions in 2026 and 2028, aimed at exploring the south pole for water and building a rudimentary outpost with Russia, in an effort to achieve Beijing’s aim of putting astronauts on the moon by 2030.

The Chang’e-6 lunar probe and the Long March-5 Y8 carrier rocket. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

As part of its mission, the Chang’e-6 will attempt to retrieve samples from the south pole Aitken Basin, the largest and oldest impact crater on the moon, situated on the side permanently facing away from Earth. Experts say the samples which could answer questions about a significant period of solar system activity billions of years ago.

State news agency Xinhua hailed the launch as “the first endeavour of its kind in the history of human lunar exploration”.

Neil Melville-Kenney, a technical officer at the European Space Agency working with Chinese researchers on one of the Chang’e-6 payloads, told Reuters: “The far side of the moon has a mystique perhaps because we literally can’t see it, we have never seen it apart from with robotic probes or the very few number of humans that have been around the other side.”

Should the mission be successful, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) is expected to share the samples internationally, just as it did with the moon rocks collected during the 5th Chang’e mission – the first collected since the Soviet Lunar mission.

That mission in 2020 confirmed for the first time that China could safely return an uncrewed spacecraft to Earth from the lunar surface.

China’s space program is central to the government’s overall national strategy, and is widely celebrated within the country as a demonstration of the nation’s technological advancement.

Beijing’s polar plans have worried Nasa, whose administrator, Bill Nelson, has repeatedly warned that China would claim any water resources as its own. Beijing says it remains committed to cooperation with all nations on building a “shared” future.

Nelson has also warned of China bolstering its space capabilities by using civilian programs to mask military objectives, cautioning that Washington must remain vigilant.

The US is planning to put astronauts back on the moon by 2026 with its Artemis 3 mission.

Reuters contributed to this report

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