China’s Chang’e-5 mission lands on the moon

The Chang’e-5 mission landed on the moon to collect samples of lunar soil and rocks. (Image Credit: CCTV)

On December 2nd, 2020, China’s Chang’e-5 mission successfully collected moon rocks and dust from the lunar surface. The probe packed and sealed the samples after a 19-hour operation following its landing on the previous night. Powered by a solar battery, it only had two days to collect and drill for underground samples. The Chang’e-5 mission is expected to land at Siziwang Banner, Inner Mongolia, on December 16th.


If the mission goes well, China becomes the third country to retrieve lunar samples, after the United States and the former Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s. The US Apollo program brought 382kg of lunar soil and rocks back to Earth over six moon-landing missions. In 1976, the Soviets collected over 300 grams of lunar samples from three missions. China’s spacecraft drilled two meters for rock cores and collected 2kg of moon dust in its capsules.


Developed by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the sampling and packing system aboard the Chang’e 5 lander includes two samplers for gathering loose and sticky lunar samples. It also has a packaging and sealing system that stores samples in a container.


Once the samples were collected on December 5th, a robot arm lifted the container and put it inside the ascender, which lifted off and docked with the lunar orbiter. Then, the samples were transferred to a reentry capsule attached to the Chang’e-5 orbiter. Six hours later, the ascent vehicle and a docking adapter were jettisoned. Now, the orbiter is in lunar orbit, awaiting a window for trans-Earth injection, allowing a reentry and landing of the reentry capsule.


China’s space ambitions revealed

China’s robot rover is expected to land on Mars in February, searching for signs of water. (Image Credit: CNSA)


The landing of China’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft on the moon is part of a space program that has a robot rover on the way to Mars, is developing a reusable space plane, and plans on putting humans on the lunar surface. A generation behind the U.S. and Russia, China’s military-linked space program is developing rather quickly and is creating missions that could give Beijing the leading edge in space flight.


In 2003, China was the third country to send an astronaut into orbit. The first orbiting lab was launched in 2011 and another in 2016. Now, the country is planning on launching a permanent space station after 2022. Following astronaut Yang Liwei’s 2003 flight, space officials hoped for a crewed lunar mission in 2020, but they said budget and technology set them back. Instead, the target date has been delayed to 2024 or later.


A reason wasn’t given for landing the probe on the moon’s Oceanus Procellarum, far away from where the American and Soviet craft landed. This selection might have to do with possible areas being investigated for a crewed mission. Beijing also joined the Mars exploration race. Its Tianwen-1 probe, which launched in July with a robot rover to look for signs of water, is expected to finish its 470-million kilometer trek in February.


A permanent crewed space station is expected in 2022. Later on, the agency plans on launching an international lunar research base. China’s space plane underwent a successful test flight in September, but the space agency hasn’t released any details or a photo of the craft.



Engineers are developing PitRanger, a lunar exploring rover

The PitRanger is expected to explore pits on the moon, which could help future astronauts seek shelter from radiation and hazardous elements. (Image Credit: William Whittaker/PitRanger team)


Engineers at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University are developing a pit-exploring lunar rover, called PitRanger, which could investigate skylights, lava tubes, and caves on the moon. These underground environments could be exploited by future astronauts to seek shelter against radiation and other hazardous elements.

To provide a reproduction of a pit, improving the robot’s final design and capacities, the team measured and modeled a pit on Earth. Then, they produced a photogrammetric model from 10,000 rover images taken from 26 areas around the 330-feet deep West Desert Sinkhole in Utah.


The 33-pound PitRanger prototype is equipped with a telephoto camera and a panning unit mounted on its solar panel. It moves at an average top speed of one inch per second. The team plans on having the PitRanger select and pre-process the best images of a lunar pit, which are sent back to the lander for modeling. This requires several trips to the pit to take more images and measurements.


Additionally, the lunar would have autonomous software, allowing it to make logistics and imaging decisions for the best vantage points around each pit.


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