Lunar leap
Editorial  ·  2024-06-12  ·   Source: NO.24 JUNE 13, 2024

History was made on June 4 when the Chang'e-6 probe ascender lifted off from the moon's far side carrying samples. For the first time, humanity has successfully collected samples from that side of the moon, which always faces away from Earth.

Though images have long been taken of this "hidden side," the collected samples will allow scientists to analyze the soil structure and physical properties on this rarely explored terrain more closely. This analysis could shed more light on the moon's formation and even the origins of the solar system.

The far side of the moon is never visible from Earth because the moon takes roughly the same amount of time to complete an orbit around Earth and to rotate on its axis: some 27 days.

The Chang'e-4 probe made the first ever soft landing on the moon's far side in 2019. One year later, the Chang'e-5 mission returned samples from the moon's near side. The Chang'e-6 probe was launched on May 3. Its lander-ascender touched down in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, the largest, oldest and deepest basin recognized on the moon, on June 2. It collected both subsurface samples by drilling and surface samples with a robotic arm.

The ascender performed unmanned rendezvous and docking with the orbiter-returner in lunar orbit on June 6. The collected samples were transferred to the returner, which will re-enter Earth's atmosphere and land. The mission is expected to conclude by the end of June.

In Chinese mythology, the legendary figure Chang'e ascends to the moon and becomes its goddess after consuming an elixir of immortality. Hence the name for China's lunar exploration program, which aims for a manned landing before 2030. This program has significantly advanced since the launch of the Chang'e-1 probe in 2007, which made a controlled crash on the lunar surface after orbiting the moon for 16 months.

Notably, Chang'e-6 carried with it several international payloads. A French instrument was deployed to measure radon, a radioactive gas, on the moon's surface. Additionally, an Italian laser retro-reflector installed on the probe's lander was used for positioning and distance measurement.

As China works toward its goal of uncovering the moon's mysteries, it remains open to international collaboration. The country has underlined its commitment to the peaceful use of space technology and is ready to share its discoveries with the global community. BR

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