China released video footage on Wednesday showing the arrival of its Chang’e-5 robotic spacecraft on the moon’s surface. Racing across a landscape sprinkled with craters on Tuesday, the camera pauses momentarily before a breathtaking fall begins. An instant later, a splash of moon dust and a shadow of the lander signaled that the probe’s touchdown was a success.
“Very precise and exciting landing, right in the middle of the most important geologic unit in the broader Chang’e 5 candidate landing region,” James W. Head III, a geological science professor at Brown University, said in an email. Dr. Head collaborated with Chinese scientists on where the mission should go to gather rocks and soil to bring back to Earth.
The lander set down, as planned, in a region of the moon known as Mons Rumker, at 10:11 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday. The spacecraft is 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.
Within hours of arriving on the moon, Chang’e-5 set about drilling and scooping its lunar samples.
Images from Chang’e-5 show a desolate landscape with gentle rolling hills. A dearth of nearby craters points to the area’s youth.
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 lander has already completed its drilling and stored the sample. It continues scooping up some soil around the spacecraft. Once that is complete, the top half of the lander will blast back off into space as soon as Thursday. That will be the start of 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 will 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.
Three robotic missions are currently operating on the moon. 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.