A rocket heading for the moon to bring back the first lunar samples in four decades yesterday blasted off from China in the latest milestone for Beijing’s spacefaring ambitions.
China has poured billions into its military-run space program, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and of eventually sending humans to the moon.
The mission’s goal is to shovel up lunar rocks and soil to help scientists learn about the moon’s origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.
State TV footage of the launch showed the rocket blasting off into the night sky and carrying the Chang’e 5 probe — named for the Chinese moon goddess — with huge clouds of smoke billowing out underneath.
The 8-tonne spacecraft took off at 4:30am at the Wenchang Space Center on Hainan Island.
Crowds watched the launch from the beach on the tropical Chinese island, holding mobile phones aloft to film as the rocket blasted into the sky.
The original mission, planned for 2017, was delayed due to an engine failure in the Long March 5 rocket.
If successful, China would be only the third country to have retrieved samples from the moon, following the US and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Chinese probe is to collect 2kg of surface material in a previously unexplored area known as Oceanus Procellarum — or “Ocean of Storms” — which consists of a vast lava plain, the science journal Nature said.
The probe is expected to land late this month and collect material during one lunar day — equivalent to about 14 Earth days.
The samples are then to be returned to Earth in a capsule programmed to land in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region early next month, NASA said.
The mission is technically challenging and involves several innovations not seen during previous attempts at collecting moon rocks, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“The US never did a robotic sample return. The Soviet one was very limited and could only land at certain restricted spots,” McDowell said.
“China’s system will be the most flexible and capable robotic sample return system yet,” he added.
A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the Moon in January last year, in a global first that boosted Beijing’s aspirations to become a space superpower.
It was the second Chinese probe to land on the moon, following the Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” rover mission in 2013.
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