China to launch moon mission, seeking to be first country in decades to collect lunar rocks

China is preparing to send an unmanned spacecraft to a previously unexplored part of the moon on Tuesday in a bid to bring back material that could help scientists better understand the satellite’s origins.



a man in a blue shirt standing in front of a crowd: Workers prepare for the launch of the Long March-5 rocket, which will carry the Chang'e-5 lunar mission, at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China's Hainan province on Nov. 23, 2020.


© Tingshu Wang/Reuters
Workers prepare for the launch of the Long March-5 rocket, which will carry the Chang’e-5 lunar mission, at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan province on Nov. 23, 2020.

Only the United States and the Soviet Union have successfully brought lunar material back to Earth.

Chang’e-5 is scheduled to launch from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. local time Tuesday. The mission is named for the Chinese goddess of the moon.

The Long March-5 launch rocket carrying the Chang’e-5’s four modules — the lander, the ascent vehicle, the service capsule and the return capsule — began its fueling process on Monday, Chinese state media reported.



a person in a blue shirt: A patch for the China Lunar Exploration Program is displayed on the uniform of a worker at the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Nov. 23, 2020.


© Mark Schiefelbein/AP
A patch for the China Lunar Exploration Program is displayed on the uniform of a worker at the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Nov. 23, 2020.

The lander is scheduled to touch down in an area called Oceanus Procellarum and stay on the moon for only as long as one lunar day — the equivalent of around two weeks on Earth.

Once there, it will attempt to dig about seven feet into the ground, then transfer the collected material to the ascender. According to NASA, the ascender will then dock on the service capsule, at which point the samples will be transferred to the return capsule. That capsule will then return to Earth, where it is expected to land in Inner Mongolia early next month. The mission’s goal is to collect about 4.5 pounds of material for research.

Jack Singal, an associate professor of physics at the University of Richmond, said that — if successful — the mission will allow scientists to directly date the rocks and volcanic activity from the collection site. By then calibrating the age to crater density, he said, it could set the stage to “give us a better handle on dating rocks on the rest of the surface of the moon and other rocky bodies,” including Mercury and Mars.

The mission, Singal said, is “an appropriate-scale mission for an emerging space power.”

The endeavor is the latest in China’s ambitious plans to expand its research in space, a rivalrous aspect of the U.S-China relationship.

In July, China launched its Tianwen-1 mission, marking the country’s first attempt to land a rover on Mars. NASA launched its Mars mission, called Perseverance, the next week. The United Arab Emirates also launched an orbiter to Mars that month.

In January 2019, China became the first country to successfully land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. On that mission, called Chang’e 4, the craft landed in the Von Kármán crater, located in the South Pole-Aitken basin. The Chinese National Space Administration said the landing “marked a new chapter in the

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China to Collect Moon Rocks in a Mission Launching Soon

China plans to, as soon as early Monday morning, launch a spacecraft to the moon’s surface that aims to be the first to bring back lunar rocks in more than four decades.

The mission, Chang’e-5, is the latest step in an ambitious space program that China hopes will culminate with an international lunar research station and ultimately a human colony on the moon by the 2030s.

If Chang’e-5 is successful, China will be only the third nation to bring pieces of the moon back to Earth. NASA astronauts accomplished that feat during the Apollo moon landings, as did the Soviet Union’s Luna robotic landers, ending with Luna 24 in 1976. Those samples made major contributions to our understanding of the solar system’s evolution, and planetary scientists have waited eagerly for the day more samples would be brought back to Earth.

“This is a really audacious mission,” said David S. Draper, the deputy chief scientist at NASA. “They’re going to move the ball down the field in a big way with respect to understanding a lot of things that are important about lunar history.”

There has been a revival of interest in returning to the moon in the past couple of decades after the discovery of frozen water in shadowed craters in the polar regions. NASA has set a goal to send astronauts on new moon landings in the coming years with its Artemis program. Commercial companies — some under contract to NASA — are aiming to send robotic landers to the moon in the next year or two. India and an Israeli nonprofit tried to land spacecraft on the moon in 2019, but both spacecraft crashed.

In this century, so far only China has successfully put robotic spacecraft on the surface of the moon: Chang’e-3 in December 2013, and Chang’e-4, which in January 2019 became the first spacecraft to land on the far side of the moon. Chang’e-4 is still roving and studying lunar geology nearly two years later.

Although it started much later than the United States and the Soviet Union, China has made huge progress over the past decade, putting it among the elite ranks of space-faring nations. In addition to the lunar missions, China’s astronauts have docked in orbit with space stations of the country’s own construction three times. In July, the Tianwen-1 mission set course for Mars, and will try to land on the red planet’s surface next year.

These accomplishments have become a source of national pride, carefully managed to emphasize the Communist Party’s strong and steady leadership. China’s space program remains secretive, but officials have offered more details than usual about Chang’e-5 — a sign perhaps of growing confidence in the proven track record of the missions.

The entire Chang’e-5 mission, from liftoff to the recovery of the rock samples, will be over in less than a month.

After the spacecraft enters orbit around the moon, Chang’e-5 will split into two: A lander will head to the surface while the other piece, an orbiter,

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Watch a NASA spacecraft collect pebbles from the ancient asteroid Bennu

OSIRIS-REx
OSIRIS-REx

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission readies itself to touch the surface of asteroid Bennu. NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

This article originally appeared [here on Salon.com]

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) made history on Tuesday when its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected samples from an asteroid, Bennu, that scientists believe may have had water on its surface earlier in its history.

OSIRIS-REx briefly touched the asteroid’s surface in order to gather rocks, pebbles and other geological artifacts from the celestial body so that they could be brought back to Earth by 2023, according to NASA. Despite spending several hours getting to the asteroid’s surface, engineers believe that it only touched it for roughly six seconds before using its thrusters to back away. On Wednesday, the agency released partial footage of OSIRIS-REx’s journey, one that showed the spacecraft’s arm slowly descending toward soil that looked not too different from what one might find in an Earth desert.

“You can see that particles are flying all over the place,” Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission, told reporters in a news briefing on Wednesday. “We really did kind of make a mess on the surface of this asteroid, but it’s a good mess. It’s the kind of mess we were hoping for.”

According to the agency, on Tuesday OSIRIS-REx used its thrusters to push itself out of orbit around Bennu, where it has been since 2018. The spacecraft then commenced a roughly four descent of a half-mile toward its surface, followed by a pair of maneuvers that allowed it to reach “Nightingale,” a predetermined site the size of a small parking lot that had one of the few relatively clear spots on the asteroid, which is covered in boulders. Once it landed there it used its sampling arm, known as the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), to collect the materials from Bennu’s northern hemisphere.

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“This was an incredible feat – and today we’ve advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system’s entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.”

Watch the sampling arm of the craft make contact with the surface in the video below:

There are a number of reasons to be optimistic about what these soil samples could teach us about the origins of life in the universe. For one thing, Bennu is a carbonaceous asteroid, meaning that it is comprised largely of carbon, an element considered to be one of the building blocks of life. The astroid itself is small, about 500 meters in diameter. Two years ago Lauretta announced that, based on the seeming appearance of clay-like materials on the asteroid’s surface, that Bennu “appears to be

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How NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft lands on asteroid to collect rock

  • NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft landed on an asteroid called Bennu and collected samples of its rock on Tuesday.
  • The probe, which is the size of a 15-passenger van, maneuvered around hazardous boulder fields to reach its small landing zone.
  • NASA does not yet know whether Osiris-Rex scooped up enough rock. If it did, the sample could help scientists learn how life arose on Earth.
  • The mission could also help NASA deflect the asteroid if it is found to be at risk of crashing into Earth.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

NASA just landed a spacecraft on an asteroid.

If everything went as planned, the probe also sucked up a sample of dust and rock from the surface.

From 200 million miles away, NASA and its engineering partner, Lockheed Martin, instructed the Osiris-Rex spacecraft to descend to the surface of a space rock called Bennu, touching it for just five to 10 seconds on Tuesday evening. In that time, the probe should have collected samples from the asteroid’s surface, though NASA won’t confirm success in that maneuver for several more days. It’s set to bring these pieces of Bennu back to Earth in 2023.

The spacecraft’s name is short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer. It beamed back confirmation that it had landed on Bennu’s surface, and the signal reached Earth at 6:11 p.m. ET — about 18 minutes after the actual touchdown.Mission Control erupted in cheers and applause.

“Transcendental. I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” Dante Lauretta, the mission’s principal investigator, said during NASA’s live broadcast of the operation. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”

osiris rex asteroid bennu landing sample collection touch and go

An artist’s rendering of OSIRIS-REx touching down at the Nightingale site on asteroid Bennu.


NASA/Goddard/SVS/CI Lab



The goal was for Osiris-Rex to pick up at least one 2.1-ounce (60-gram) sample, which is about a small bag of potato chips’ worth of mass.It will take a few days to determine whether the probe did indeed snatch up enough rock. 

The spacecraft has been orbiting Bennu since December 2018. It’s set to leave in March 2021, samples in tow, then reach Earth on September 24, 2023.

The mission’s research could be crucial over the next 100-plus years, since Bennu’s path puts it at risk of crashing into Earth.

“Bennu is one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids, with a non-negligible chance of impacting the Earth at some point in the 22nd century,” Lauretta said in September. “Part of our science investigation is about understanding its orbital trajectory, refining the impact probability, and documenting its physical and chemical properties so that future generations can develop an impact-mitigation mission, if that’s necessary.”

There are other important reasons to study Bennu as well: As new missions go deeper into space, they will need to make pit stops to mine asteroids for resources like water, which can be split into oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel. The data NASA is gathering from Bennu could help inform future asteroid-mining attempts.

osiris rex asteroid bennu touch and go sample collection

An artist’s rendering of

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NASA will attempt to collect samples from the surface of an asteroid

NASA will attempt Tuesday to collect samples from the surface of an asteroid in a carefully orchestrated, hourslong maneuver in orbit.

After spending nearly two years circling the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will use its robotic arm to gather pieces of the space rock that will subsequently be sent to Earth for study. The event marks an important milestone for NASA: If successful, it will be the first time the agency has gathered samples from an asteroid in space.

“It’s a historic first mission for NASA,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a news briefing Monday. “And it’s hard.”

The samples are expected to be delivered to Earth in September 2023, according to NASA. Scientists have said that the precious materials from Bennu’s surface could reveal intriguing insights into how the solar system came to be. Asteroids are pristine collections of the ancient ingredients that formed the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago, so studying the chemical properties of space rocks could unlock secrets about planets and the origins of life on Earth.

As a near-Earth asteroid, Bennu could also help researchers understand more about space rocks that pose a threat to the planet, as well as how these celestial bodies could be mined for valuable resources in the future.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) has been orbiting Bennu from an altitude of approximately 2,500 feet but will spend several hours Tuesday descending toward the asteroid’s surface.

The spacecraft is equipped with an 11-foot-long robotic arm that will reach down and grab samples from the space rock. At around 6:12 p.m. EDT, the spacecraft’s arm is expected to touch down at a landing site dubbed Nightingale that NASA said is roughly the size of a few parking spaces.

The entire maneuver, which Zurbuchen likens to a “high five” with Bennu, will take about 4 1/2 hours. The spacecraft will be in contact with the asteroid for fewer than 16 seconds, according to NASA. The van-sized probe is expected to gather at least 2 ounces of rubble from the surface.

After the “touch-and-go” operation, OSIRIS-REx will fire its thrusters to safely back away from Bennu.

The $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission launched in September 2016 and the spacecraft arrived at Bennu roughly two years later. The probe has been mapping the asteroid’s surface, studying its composition and beaming back photos of the space rock, which is about as tall as the Empire State Building, according to NASA.

Bennu is located more than 200 million miles away from Earth but has an orbit that can swing it to within 4.6 million miles of the planet. As such, Bennu and other near-Earth asteroids are classified as potentially hazardous objects. NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office has calculated that there is a 1 in 2,700 chance of Bennu hitting Earth sometime between the years 2175 and 2199.

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will play ‘tag’ with asteroid Bennu to collect samples today. But will it succeed?

After more than a year of carefully mapping asteroid Bennu, a NASA spacecraft will attempt an historic “touch and go” to nab a precious sample of dirt to return to Earth. But we won’t know if it fully succeeded for another 10 days, NASA officials said in a news conference on Monday (Oct. 19).

The OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft will start its descent today (Oct. 20), and you can watch it live here on Space.com, courtesy of NASA Television. Since it takes about 18 minutes for signals to travel between the spacecraft and mission controllers on Earth, all maneuvers are programmed ahead of time and the spacecraft will be transmitting information as it goes along. 

Early images from the asteroid will hint at whether the scoop succeeded, but it will only be by comparing the spacecraft’s mass before and after the maneuver that engineers will finally know how much asteroid dirt is inside OSIRIS-REx. The maneuvers and analysis will take roughly 10 days, meaning the spacecraft’s outcome won’t be known until at least late October.

OSIRIS-REx: NASA’s asteroid sample-return mission in pictures

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft captured this image of the Nightingale site on asteroid Bennu, on April 29, 2020.  (Image credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

But even the landing will be a journey for team members, some of whom have been participating in the mission planning for a dozen years or longer. 

“It will be four and a half hours of anxiousness,” Beth Buck, OSIRIS-REx mission operations program manager at Lockheed Martin Space, said in a NASA-led news conference Monday (Oct. 19). That’s as opposed to the typical “seven minutes of terror” associated with a Mars spacecraft descent, she added.

“The best outcome would be that we collect a massive sample,” Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona, said of what the team hopes to see in about 10 days, when data from the spacecraft’s spin will show changes in mass that will indicate whether there is asteroid material ready inside for transport back to Earth in 2023.

While the mission design calls for 1.7 ounces (50 grams) of fine-grained material, there is room for up to 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms), Enos said. “I would love for that capsule to be completely full,” she added.

Around 1:50 p.m EDT (1950 GMT) on landing day today (Tuesday, Oct. 20), controllers should receive telemetry from Bennu showing that the spacecraft departed from orbit. OSIRIS-REx will carefully maneuver twice more in two burns to get properly positioned for the surface and also, to verify it is on the right track to pluck a scoop of regolith.

A “checkpoint” burn will transmit information back to Earth around 5:50 p.m. EDT (2250 GMT), when the spacecraft is roughly 160 feet (50 meters) above the surface. Ten minutes later, OSIRIS-REx will transmit information from its third and final “matchpoint” burn that it will set it up for soft contact on the surface at 6:12 p.m. EDT (2312

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WATCH LIVE: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to collect sample from asteroid Bennu

Imagine parallel parking a 15-passenger van into just two to three parking spaces surrounded by two-story boulders. On Oct. 20, a University of Arizona-led NASA mission 16 years in the making will attempt the astronomical equivalent more than 200 million miles away.

A NASA mission called OSIRIS-REx will soon attempt to touch the surface of an asteroid and collect loose rubble.

Watch the sample collection “Touch-And-Go” maneuver Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 5 p.m. ET in the player above.

OSIRIS-REx is the United States’ first asteroid sample return mission, aiming to collect and carry a pristine, unaltered sample from an asteroid back to Earth for scientific study. The spacecraft will attempt to touch the surface of the asteroid Bennu, which is hurtling through space at 63,000 miles per hour. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will deploy an 11-foot-long robotic arm called TAGSAM – Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism – and spend about 10 seconds collecting at least two ounces of loose rubble from the asteroid. The spacecraft, monitored remotely by a team of scientists and engineers, will then stow away the sample and begin its return to Earth, scheduled for 2023.

As senior vice president for research and innovation at UArizona and a mechanical engineer with a long career in space systems engineering, I believe this milestone for OSIRIS-REx captures perfectly the spirit of research and innovation, the careful balance of problem-solving and perseverance, of obstacle and opportunity.

What Bennu can teach us

In 2004, Michael Drake, then head of the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory; his protégé, Dante Lauretta, then a UArizona assistant professor of planetary science; and experts from Lockheed Martin and NASA discussed the very earliest concept of the OSIRIS-REx mission and what it might achieve.

Asteroids are relics of the earliest materials that formed our solar system, and studying such a sample might allow scientists to answer fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system. Further, Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid with possible risk of impacting the Earth in the late 2100s, so the mission also is exploring ways in which such a collision might be avoided.

Perhaps, though, the most ambitious goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission is resource identification – the “RI” in OSIRIS. This means, essentially, mapping the chemical properties of Bennu to learn, among other things, about the potential for mining asteroids to produce rocket fuel – a notion which, in 2004, was far ahead of its time.

NASA selected UArizona to lead the mission in 2011, with Drake at the helm. Lauretta, a first-generation college student and UArizona alumnus, took over when Drake died that year and continues to lead OSIRIS-REx today. He would unquestionably make his predecessor proud.

While OSIRIS-REx is the first NASA mission to attempt to collect a sample from an asteroid, the scientific and technological knowledge requisite of such a mission is the result of decades of prior exploration. In the early 1990s, NASA’s Galileo flew past the asteroids Gaspra and Ida. NEAR Shoemaker was the

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