China’s Chang’e 5 sample return craft takes off from the moon

The Chang’e 5 ascender spacecraft lifts off from the moon in this view from an upward-facing camera on the mission’s descent stage, which remained on the moon’s surface. Credit: CNSA

Wrapping up a busy two days on the lunar surface, a Chinese spacecraft carrying moon soil took off from a makeshift launch pad and fired back into orbit Thursday on the first leg of its journey back to Earth.

The Chang’e 5 mission’s ascender spacecraft fired its 674-pound-thrust main engine after being pushed off its landing platform with springs at 10:10 a.m. EST (1510 GMT) Thursday, according to the China National Space Administration.

The lunar liftoff was the first launch off the moon’s surface since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. Luna 24 was also the last mission to return lunar materials to Earth.

After a six-minute engine burn, the ascender reached a preliminary orbit around the moon and deployed power-generating solar panels, setting the stage for additional thruster firings to line up for an automated docking with the Chang’e 5 orbiter Saturday.

The link-up between the Chang’e 5 ascent vehicle and return craft will mark the first docking between two unpiloted spacecraft in lunar orbit, a required step before the mission can bring its samples back to Earth.

After docking in lunar orbit, the container carrying Chang’e 5’s samples will be transferred into the return spacecraft, which will perform additional maneuvers to break free of the moon’s gravity and head for home. Chang’e 5 is scheduled to release the sample carrier — covered in a protective heat shield — to re-enter the atmosphere and land in China’s Inner Mongolia region in mid-December.

Scientists will take the material to a climate-controlled facility to begin analyses on the rocks. Researchers hope to learn about the moon’s history and evolution.

Chang’e 5 launched Nov. 23 and entered orbit around the moon Nov. 28 before the lander detached from the mission’s orbiter and return module to begin descent maneuvers.

The successful landing of Chang’e 5 on Tuesday marked the third time China has soft-landed a spacecraft on the moon, following the Chang’e 3 mission in 2013 and Chang’e 4 in 2019. Chang’e 4 became the first spacecraft to achieve a soft landing on the far side of the moon, a feat enabled by the placement of a purpose-built Chinese data relay satellite in deep space.

Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 carried rovers to serve as mobile scouts exploring the lunar landscape. Chang’e 5’s mission on the lunar surface had no mobile rover, and the craft was designed to complete its work in two days while in sunlight, rather than surviving the two-week super-cold lunar night.

Chinese officials said the Chang’e 5 surface mission proceeded as planned. CNSA confirmed the lander first drilled samples from a depth of up to 6.6 feet, or 2 meters, then used a scoop at the end of a robotic arm to gather soil from the surface.

The spacecraft packaged and sealed the lunar material in a storage device carried by the Chang’e 5 ascender before it took off Thursday.

Artist’s illustration of the Chang’e 5 mission lifting off from the moon. Credit: CNSA

The Chang’e 5 mission’s goal was to collect more than 4 pounds, or 2 kilograms, of rocks for return to Earth. Chinese officials have not released an estimate of how much material the spacecraft gathered on the moon.

If successful, Chang’e 5 will become the first mission to retrieve material from the moon and bring it back to Earth since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.

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