The moon rocks in hand, China is preparing for future lunar missions

BEIJING (AP) – Following the successful return of moon rocks by its Chang’e 5 robotic probe, China is preparing for future missions that could set the stage for an eventual lunar base for human explorers, a top space program official said Thursday.

China’s next three lunar missions are on track, along with programs to return samples from Mars and explore asteroids and the planet Jupiter, said deputy chief commander of China’s Lunar Exploration Program, Wu Yanhua.

“Exploring the truth of the universe has only just begun,” Wu said at a press conference hours after the Chang’e 5 capsule parachuted to a landing in Inner Mongolia with the first lunar samples sent to the Earth in more than 40 years. earth. years.

Named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, the Chang’e program made three landings there, including on the less-explored other side. Scheduled for launch in 2023, Chang’e 6 will collect more samples from the Moon’s south pole, while the two successors will conduct detailed surveys and testing technologies needed to build a scientific base on the Moon.

No dates have been given for Chang’e 7 and 8, or for a manned mission to the moon that China says is in the works, or for the construction of a moon base.

“China is ready to continue to contribute to the world and improve human well-being with Chinese space solutions,” Wu said.

The Chang’e 5 probe capsule and its cargo of samples were flown to the Beijing campus of the space program just before 2 a.m.

The mission achieved firsts for China’s lunar exploration program by collecting samples, launching a vehicle from the lunar surface and attaching it to the capsule to transfer the samples for their journey to Earth, the China National Space Administration said in a statement released. issued after landing.

“As our nation’s most complex and technically groundbreaking space mission, Chang’e 5 has achieved multiple technical breakthroughs … and represents a milestone,” he said.

China became only the third country to send an astronaut into orbit under its own power in 2003 after the Soviet Union and the United States and their space program went on a steady, cautious track, resulting in fatalities and launch failures. the US has largely marred its avoided Soviet space race of the 1960s.

Wu said the latest flight was a partnership with the European Space Agency, along with Argentina, Namibia, Pakistan and other countries that the Chinese are working with in tracking and communicating with his spacecraft. In the future, China will “encourage more scientists around the world to participate in order to obtain more scientific results,” Wu said.

The United States remains an exception. Amid concerns about the secrecy of the Chinese space program and close military ties, US law prohibits cooperation between NASA and the CNSA unless Congress gives its approval. That has prevented China from participating in the International Space Station and helped spur Beijing to launch a now-defunct experimental space station and formulate plans to complete a permanent outpost in orbit within the next two years.

Two of Chang’e 5’s four modules landed on the moon on December 1 and collected about 2 kg (4.4 pounds) of samples by scooping them off the surface and 2 meters (about 6 feet) into the crust of the moon to drill. The samples were placed in a sealed container that was returned to the return module by an ascending vehicle.

The newly collected rocks are believed to be billions of years younger than those previously obtained by the US and the former Soviet Union, and offer new insights into the history of the moon and other bodies in the solar system. They come from a part of the moon known as the Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms, near a place called the Mons Rumker that was believed to be volcanic in ancient times.

Like the 382 kilograms of lunar samples that American astronauts brought back between 1969 and 1972, they will be analyzed for age and composition and are expected to be shared with other countries.

The age of the samples will help fill a gap in knowledge about the history of the moon between about 1 billion and 3 billion years ago, Brad Jolliff, director of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at Washington University in the US city. St. Louis, wrote in an email. They could also provide clues about the availability of economically useful resources on the Moon, such as concentrated hydrogen and oxygen, Jolliff said.

“These monsters will be a treasure trove!” Jolliff wrote. “My hat is off to our Chinese colleagues for carrying out a very difficult mission; the science resulting from the analysis of the returned samples will be a legacy that will last many, many years, and hopefully the international community of scientists will be involved. “

Whether US researchers can access the samples depends on US policy, Wu said.

“Whether it be US government departments, commercial operations, scientists or engineers, we sincerely seek friendly cooperation based on equality, mutual benefit and peaceful application,” Wu said.