June 16, 2024

A Chinese probe carrying samples from the far side of the moon has begun its journey back to Earth, the country’s space agency said – a world first and a major achievement for Beijing’s space program.

The ascent module of the Chang’e-6 probe “lifted off the lunar surface” and entered a predetermined orbit around the moon, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) said.

It was the first craft to successfully lift off from the moon’s far side, with state news agency Xinhua describing the launch as “an unprecedented feat in human lunar exploration history”.

Analysis of the samples it brings back will allow scientists to “deepen research on the formation and evolutionary history of the moon”, Xinhua quoted Chang’e-6 mission spokesman Ge Ping as saying.

It will also provide insights into “the origins of the solar system … laying an improved foundation for later exploration missions”, he said.

The Chang’e-6 module landed on Sunday in the moon’s enormous South Pole Aitken Basin, one of the largest known impact craters in the solar system, according to the CNSA.

Image of the lunar surface taken by a panoramic camera on board the Chang’e-6 spacecraft. Photo: AP

The technically complex 53-day mission began on May 3.

The Chang’e-6 has two methods of sample collection: a drill to collect material below the surface and a robotic arm to grab samples above the surface.

After it successfully collected its samples, “a Chinese national flag carried by the lander was unfurled on the far side of the moon for the first time”, the CNSA said.

Scientists say the moon’s “dark” side – so called because it is invisible from Earth, not because it never catches the sun’s rays – holds great promise for research because its craters are less covered by ancient lava flows than the nearby lace.

Material collected from the other side can shed better light on how the moon formed in the first place.

Plans for China’s “space dream” have been scuttled under President Xi Jinping. Beijing has poured huge resources into its space program over the past decade, directing a series of ambitious ventures in an effort to close the gap with the two traditional space powers – the US and Russia.

It has achieved several notable achievements, including the construction of a space station called Tiangong, or “heavenly palace”. Beijing has landed robotic rovers on Mars and the moon, and China is only the third country to independently put humans into orbit.

But Washington has warned that China’s space program is being used to mask military goals and an attempt to establish dominance in space.

China aims to send a manned mission to the moon by 2030 and plans to build a base on the lunar surface.

The USA is also plans to put astronauts back on the moon by 2026 with its Artemis 3 mission.

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