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China probe returns carrying samples from moon's far side

June 25, 2024

The Chang'e-6 spacecraft landed back on Earth on Tuesday, touching down on the steppes of China's northern Inner Mongolian region. It returns bearing the first ever samples from the far side of the moon.

Four Chinese space agency employees stand near the landed Chang'e-6 lunar probe shortly after it returned to Earth. A chinese flag is planted in the ground next to the charred craft, displaying scorch marks from its reentry into Earth's atmosphere. June 25, 2024.
The landing of the craft, bearing scorch marks from reentry into Earth's atmosphere, was broadcast live in ChinaImage: Lian Zhen/XinHua/dpa/picture alliance

China's lunar probe landed safely in the remote steppes of northern China's border region with Mongolia on Tuesday. 

It returns bearing the first samples ever taken of rock and soil from the largely unexplored far side of the moon, the side that is never visible from Earth.

"I now declare that the Chang'e 6 Lunar Exploration Mission achieved complete success," Zhang Kejian, the director of the China National Space Administration agency said in a televised news conference shortly after the landing. State TV carried live footage of the vessel touching down. 

China's President Xi Jinping sent a message of congratulations to the Chang'e-6 team, saying that the mission was a "landmark achievement in our country's efforts at becoming a space and technological power." 

The samples were set to be transported by air to Beijing for further study, according to Chinese broadcaster CCTV.

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a replay screen shows Chang'e-6 probe collecting samples on the moon surface, at Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) in Beijing, Tuesday, June 4, 2024.
The probe scooped up surface samples, but it also drilled a little deeper Image: Jin Liwang/Xinhua/AP/picture alliance

What are researchers hoping to find and learn? 

Chinese scientists anticipate that the samples will include volcanic rock that's more than 2 million years old and other materials. Researchers hope to learn more about the differences between the two sides of the moon. They had hoped to collect roughly 2 kilograms (4.5 pounds) of samples.

The probe left Earth on May 3 for what was ultimately a 53-day mission. It both scooped up rocks from the surface and also drilled into the ground for deeper-rooted samples.

The far side of the moon is known to have mountains and impact craters, whereas the side visible from Earth is relatively flat.

Past US and Soviet moon landing missions have gathered samples from the near side of the moon, but only from there. 

The payload is "expected to answer one of the most fundamental scientific questions in lunar research: what geological activity is responsible for the differences between the two sides?" said Zongyu Yue, a geologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in a statement issued in a journal supported by the academy.

Among other things, scientists are hoping to find evidence of past meteorite strikes. 

Longer term, the prospect of identifying usable reserves of ice, and therefore water, on the moon are particularly enticing for the future of space exploration. The resource, crucial to any crewed space mission, is very heavy and cannot practically be launched out of earth's high-gravity atmosphere in large quantities.

As well as being suitable for hydration, water can also be separated into oxygen to breathe and hydrogen that could be used as rocket fuel.

A Long March-5 rocket, carrying the Chang e-6 spacecraft, blasts off from its launchpad at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in south China s Hainan Province, May 3, 2024.
The craft blasted off en route to the moon on May 3Image: Jin Liwang/IMAGO

Signs of a new 21st century space race

Several major countries have intensified their space activity in recent years, as more cost effective and simpler launch methods become available. The US, Russia, China, India and others have all shown renewed interest in lunar exploration in recent years. China's Chang'e-5 probe successfully collected samples from the near side of the moon in 2020.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson earlier this year expressed mixed feelings on this renewed interest, saying it was unfortunate that the latest "space race" seemed to be taking place amid intensifying global competition, not cooperation. 

"I'm glad there has been a resurgence in this [space] race, but of course I would like to see us racing alongside each other and together," said Neil Melville-Kenney, a technical officer at the European Space Agency (ESA) who is working with Chinese researchers on one of the Chang'e-6 payloads. 

That said, for now space has been one area where a degree of international cooperation persists even amid global tensions. This is probably best embodied by the continued US-Russian cooperation aboard the International Space Station, even amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Chang'e-6: Is geopolitics harming China-EU lunar mission?

msh/rmt (AFP, AP, Reuters)