China’s Chang’e 5 spacecraft has entered orbit around the moon ahead of an historic attempt to collect samples from the moon and return to Earth.
The 18,100-lb. (8,200 kilograms) Chang’e 5 launched on a Long March 5 rocket on Monday (Nov. 23) from the country’s Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on Hainan Island and reached the moon today (Nov. 28) after an 112-hour journey.
The Chang’e 5 orbiter module fired its main engine at 7:58 a.m. EST (1258 UTC; 8:58 p.m. Beijing time) when 249 miles (400 kilometers) away from the moon, the China Lunar Exploration Program announced just under an hour later.
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The spacecraft fired its 3,000-Newton engine for around 17 minutes. This slowed the spacecraft down enough to allow it to be captured by the moon’s gravity.
The maneuver is a major step in the 23-day Chang’e mission that aims to deliver fresh lunar samples to Earth in mid-December. No such mission has been attempted since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.
During its journey to the moon radio enthusiasts have been tracking the spacecraft, and even managed to decode data sent back to Earth, revealing footage showing sunlight shining on a solar panel.
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THIS. IS. JUST. AWESOME. !!!This is video decoded from the 8455MHz high rate downlink @uhf_satcom received yesterday. All the work on the decoder and data analysis really paid off in the end!Video shows solar panel of Chang’e-5 glistening in the sun and dust floating around. pic.twitter.com/FKc92kgsklNovember 25, 2020
In the near future the mission lander will separate from Chang’e 5 orbiter and attempt to land near Mons Rümker in the western hemisphere of the moon. China has not released a time and date for the landing attempt, but lighting from the sun over the designated landing would allow an attempt as early as Sunday.
Mons Rümker is a peak with the huge volcanic plain of Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”). Some areas around the site are believed by scientists to be made of rock that is just over 1 billion years old. It is thought these areas were created by geologically recent volcanism and thus show fewer craters than older regions. By contrast the samples collected by the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Luna missions are all over 3 billion years old.
The lander is equipped with both a drill and a scoop. Together they will collect around 4.4 lbs (2 kilograms) of lunar material which will be placed in a container aboard an ascent vehicle atop the lander. Around two days after the landing the ascent vehicle will take off and attempt to rendezvous and dock with the orbiter module waiting in lunar orbit.
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Once docked, the ascent