China landed on the far side of the moon in a historic sampling mission

China landed on the far side of the moon in a historic sampling mission

China landed an uncrewed spacecraft on the far side of the moon on Sunday, overcoming a major hurdle in its landmark mission to obtain the world’s first rock and soil samples from the dark lunar hemisphere.

The landing boosted China’s status as a space power in the global rush to the moon, where countries including the United States hope to exploit lunar minerals to sustain long-term astronaut missions and lunar bases in the coming decades.

The Chang’e-6 craft, equipped with various instruments and its own launcher, landed in a giant impact crater called the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the moon’s skyward side at 6:23 a.m. Beijing time (2223 GMT ), the National Space Administration China said.

The mission “involved many engineering innovations, high risks and great difficulties”, the agency said in a statement, on its website. “The payload carried by the Chang’e-6 lander will function as planned and carry out a mission of scientific exploration.”

The successful mission was China’s second to the far side of the moon, a territory that no other country has ever reached. The side of the moon that always faces Earth is filled with deep, dark craters, making communications and robotic landing operations more challenging.

Given these challenges, lunar and space experts involved in the Chang’e-6 mission describe the landing phase as the moment where the chance of failure is the highest.

“Landing on the far side of the moon is very difficult because you don’t have line-of-sight communications, you rely on a lot of links in the chain to control what’s going on, or you have to automate what’s going on,” said Neil Melville-Kenney, technical officer at the European Space Agency working with China on one of the Chang’e-6 payloads.

“Automation is very difficult especially at high latitudes because you have long shadows which can be very confusing for the lander,” Melville added.

The Chang’e-6 probe launched on May 3 aboard China’s Long Mac 5 rocket from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan, arriving around the moon about a week later before tightening its orbit in preparation for landing.

Chang’e-6 marks the world’s third lunar landing this year: Japan’s SLIM lander landed in January, followed the following month by a lander from US startup Intuitive Machine.

Other countries that have sent spacecraft to Earth’s nearest neighbors are the then Soviet Union and India. The United States is the only country to have landed a man on the moon, starting in 1969.

Emulating the Moon

Using scoops and drills, the Chang’e-6 lander will aim to collect 2 kg (4.4 pounds) of lunar material over two days and bring it back to Earth.

The sample will be transferred to a rocket booster on the lander, which will launch back into space, tag along with other spacecraft in lunar orbit and return, with a landing in China’s Inner Mongolia region expected around June 25.

 

If all goes as planned, the mission will provide China with a pristine record of 4.5 billion years of lunar history and yield new clues about the formation of the solar system. It will also allow unprecedented comparisons between unexplored dark regions with the better-understood side of the moon facing Earth.

The simulation laboratory for the Chang’e-6 probe will develop and validate sampling strategies and equipment control procedures, China’s official Xinhua news agency said. It will use a full-scale replica of the sampling area based on exploration of the environment, rock distribution and lunar soil conditions around the landing site.

China’s lunar strategy includes landing its first astronauts around 2030 in a program that counts Russia as a partner. In 2020, China conducted its first lunar sample return mission with Chang’e-5, taking samples from the near side of the moon.

The US Artemis program envisions a manned lunar landing by the end of 2026 or later. NASA has partnered with space agencies including Canada, Europe and Japan, whose astronauts will join the US crew on the Artemis mission.

Artemis relies heavily on private companies, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, whose Starship rocket aims this decade to attempt the first astronaut landing since NASA’s last Apollo mission in 1972.

On Saturday, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa canceled a private lunar mission he had paid for, which was supposed to use SpaceX’s Starship, citing schedule uncertainties in the rocket’s development.

Boeing and NASA delay the launch of Starliner the company’s first, delayed capsule that aims to be the second US space taxi to low-Earth orbit.

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