Two days after it landed on the moon, China’s Chang’e-5 mission is on its way again, blasting off back to space, the beginning of its journey back to Earth ferrying a bounty of soil and rocks for scientists to study.
The top half of the lander launched at 10:10 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday, according to the China National Space Administration. Footage posted by Chinese state media showed the flash of the spacecraft’s engine as it headed to orbit, an ascent that took about six minutes.
It was the first time any spacecraft had launched from the lunar surface since the end of the Cold War moon race in 1976, and the first Chinese spacecraft to ever blast off from another world in the solar system.
The lander set down on Tuesday in a region of the moon known as Mons Rumker. The spacecraft was in the middle of a basalt lava plain that is about two billion years younger than the parts of the moon explored more than four decades ago by NASA’s Apollo astronauts and the Soviet Union’s robotic Luna landers. Images from the spacecraft show a desolate landscape with gentle rolling hills, a sign of its youth.
Within hours of arriving on the moon, Chang’e-5 set about drilling and scooping its lunar samples — perhaps more than four pounds.
Scientists are curious how this region remained molten far longer than the rest of the moon. Examination of these rocks in laboratories on Earth will also pin down their exact age, and that will calibrate a method that planetary scientists use to determine the ages of the surfaces of planets, moons and other bodies throughout the solar system.
The spacecraft’s departure is the first step in a complex sequence to return the rocks to Earth.
After it arrived in lunar orbit over the weekend, Chang’e-5 split into two. While the lander headed for the surface, the other half remained in orbit.
The ascent portion of the lander is to rendezvous and dock with the piece that remained in orbit. The rocks and soil will be transferred to a return capsule for a trip back to Earth, parachuting to a landing in Inner Mongolia later this month.
There have been three successful missions to the moon’s surface following the 1970s. All three are Chinese. A Chinese mission is also on its way to Mars, where it will attempt the country’s first landing on another planet next year.
No other country has successfully landed on the moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 spacecraft in 1976. Two attempts last year — one by an Israeli nonprofit and one by India’s space agency — ended in failure, with both crashing.
NASA intends to return astronauts to the moon later this decade, but has intermediate plans to pay commercial companies to land robotic payloads on the lunar surface, which could begin next year.