Your Guide to China’s Chang’e-5 Moon Mission

How Chang’e-5 works

No spacecraft has returned a sample of the Moon to Earth since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. Chang’e-5 will undertake this challenge using an architecture similar to NASA’s Apollo missions. The spacecraft consists of 4 pieces: a service module, a lander, an ascent vehicle, and an Earth return module. In lunar orbit, the lander and ascent module will descend to the surface, while the service module and Earth return module remain in orbit. The lander will collect samples using a mechanical scoop and a drill that can burrow 2 meters underground. Up to 4 kilograms of lunar material will be deposited in the ascent vehicle.

The Chang’e-5 lander also carries 3 scientific payloads. A suite of cameras will document the landing site, a ground-penetrating radar will map the subsurface, and a spectrometer will determine the mineralogical composition of the landing site and calculate how much water is locked in the lunar soil. Scientists will be able to compare these readings with the samples they study back to Earth.

Relying only on solar power, Chang’e-5 will land in the lunar morning and blast the ascent vehicle back into orbit before nightfall—a period of roughly 14 Earth days. The ascent vehicle will rendezvous with the service module and transfer the samples into an Earth-return capsule. The service module will then leave lunar orbit for Earth, releasing the Earth-return capsule shortly before arrival.

Vehicles reentering Earth’s atmosphere from the Moon travel much faster than those returning from low-Earth orbit: about 11 kilometers per second versus 8 kilometers per second. Whereas human-rated vehicles like NASA’s Apollo capsule relied solely on strong heat-shielding, Chang’e-5 will perform a “skip reentry,” bouncing off the atmosphere once to slow down before plummeting to a landing in Inner Mongolia. The landing site is the same used for returning crewed Shenzhou spacecraft.

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