China will launch its next lunar mission in November this year. Chang’e-5 will attempt to retrieve samples of moon rock and return them to Earth. If the mission succeeds it will be the first lunar sample return since the Soviet Union’s Luna-24 in 1976.
The mission will be China’s most ambitious moonshot to date. Weighing in at 8.2 tonnes, the spacecraft will be launched by China’s Long March 5 rocket. This heavy-lift vehicle is one of the most powerful launchers in the world. Its maiden flight took place on 3 November 2016.
The spacecraft will consist of four distinct parts: a lander and an ascender, an orbiter and a returner. The lander will descend to the surface of the Moon, collect the samples and place them in the ascender. This will launch and rendezvous with the orbiter and returner, all of which will then journey back towards Earth.
The samples will be transferred to the returner, which will detach from the orbiter and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. In 2014, China tested the returner technology by dropping a capsule from Earth orbit to Inner Mongolia.
Chang’e-5 will be China’s fourth lunar mission. Beginning in October 2007, China have launched two lunar orbiters and a lander that carried the rover called Jade Rabbit. A second rover mission, Chang’e-4, is scheduled to land and operate on the Moon’s far side in 2018. If successful, it will be a world first.