Chang’e-6: lunar samples collected and launched into lunar orbit

HELSINKI – Material from the far side of the Moon has begun its journey toward Earth after Chinese spacecraft collected samples and launched them into lunar orbit.

The Chang’e-6 ascent vehicle lifted off from the top of the mission’s lander in Apollo Crater at 7:38 p.m. ET on June 3 (2338 UTC), the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced. Ascender is now tracking the Chang’e-6 orbiter in retrograde low lunar orbit.

Chang’e-6 landed on the far side of the Moon late on June 1 and soon after began collecting rock and regolith samples using a scoop and a drill. Up to 2000 grams were then loaded into the vehicle for ascent.

«The packaging work has been completed under normal conditions and the whole process is running smoothly,» Li Xiaoyu, an engineer at the Beijing Air Traffic Control Center (BACC), told CCTV.

The ascent vehicle lifted off and achieved autonomous positioning and position determination with the help of the Queqiao-2 relay satellite.

Successful sample and ascent operations are key steps in the complex mission of four spacecraft to deliver unique and scientifically valuable samples from the far side of the Moon to Earth.

The ascent vehicle is expected to rendezvous and dock with the mission’s service module in the next few days. Both spacecraft will travel at a speed of about 1.6 kilometers per second during the maneuver.

After docking, the sample containers will be transferred to the re-entry module through an automated process. The ascent vehicle will then be jettisoned while the service module waits for the calculated time to begin the return to Earth. This is expected between June 20 and 21, and the re-entry module is expected to land in Inner Mongolia around June 25, Beijing time.

China has not announced planned times for the milestones, but the mission is proceeding in a similar fashion to the Chang’e-5 sample return mission from nearby in 2020. Chinese space officials previously indicated the mission would last 53 days.

Enhancement for lunar and space plans

The launch from the lunar surface and the expected rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit will be applicable experience for China’s plan to send astronauts to the moon and return them safely to Earth before 2030. The sampling will also be useful for deep space endeavors such as the upcoming asteroid and comet mission Tianwen-2. China also plans to launch a Tianwen-3 sample return mission to Mars around 2030.

«The mission is quite difficult,» Ge Ping, Chang’e-6 spokesman and deputy director of CNSA’s Lunar Research and Space Engineering Center, told CCTV regarding Chang’e-6. “We launched the Queqiao-2 relay satellite in the early stages, adopted the technologies of rapid intelligent sampling and takeoff and emergence from the lunar surface, which laid a solid foundation for technologies such as soft landing and sampling on extraterrestrial bodies. »

Queqiao-2 was launched in March and entered a specialized lunar orbit. From there, it facilitates communication with the far side of the Moon, which is always facing the Earth.

Chang’e-6—an approximately 8.2-ton assembly of four spacecraft—launched on May 3 from the Wenchang Spaceport. It entered lunar orbit about 4.5 days later. The mission’s approximately 3.2-ton lander successfully landed on the moon at 6:23 p.m. ET on June 1. The lander targeted the southern part of Apollo, a mid-latitude crater within the vast and scientifically intriguing South Pole-Aitken Basin (SPA). .

The Chang’e-6 lander also released a small rover that took pictures of the main spacecraft. Traces of the drive can be seen in the lunar regolith. The image shows the lander and its solar panels, the spread blade. Also visible is the Chinese national flag, placed after the sample collection was completed. The ascent vehicle is on top of the lander. The panoramic camera also recorded the surroundings of the lander.

International cargoes, future missions

The French space agency also announced that its DORN radon release detection payload had successfully powered up and collected data. The payload was disengaged prior to launch of the ascent vehicle. The lander also carries a negative ion lunar surface (NILS) payload developed by the Swedish Institute for Space Physics, which CNSA has confirmed is included. An Italian passive laser retroreflector is also located on the lander.

The samples could contain material ejected from deep beneath the Moon’s crust. This and other materials may provide insight into why the near and far side are so different, as well as clues about the history of the early solar system.

Chang’e-6 is part of China’s broader lunar program. Earth will continue with two missions to the south pole of the Moon. They are Chang’e-7 in 2026 and Chang’e-8 around 2028. Earth aims to launch its first manned lunar mission by 2030.

Both sets of missions are part of the plan to establish a permanent base on the Moon. This project is known as the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) program, planned for the 2030s. Numerous countries and organizations signed the project.

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