Meanwhile, the space race heats up as NASA agrees to pay companies to collect moon rocks in future missions
More than 50 years after the American flag was planted on the moon, China’s flag has been unfurled on the lunar surface.
Chang’e 5’s ascent vehicle lifted off Thursday night with a load of lunar rocks, the first stage of its return to Earth, the government space agency reported.
The probe touched down Tuesday on the Sea of Storms for a mission to collect about 4 pounds of rocks and bring them back to Earth, the first return of samples since a Soviet spacecraft did so in 1976.
The lander, which remained on the moon, drilled about 6 feet into the surface and scooped samples — as well as photographed the area and used ground-penetrating radar to check for minerals and water.
Earlier in the week, Chang’e 5 touched down on the Sea of Storms on the moon’s near side to collect about four pounds of lunar rocks and bring them back to Earth.
The landing site is near a formation called the Mons Rumker and may contain rocks billions of years younger than those retrieved earlier.
The ascent vehicle lifted off from the moon shortly after 11 p.m. Beijing time Thursday (1500 GMT) and was due to rendezvous with a return vehicle in lunar orbit, then transfer the samples to a capsule, according to the China National Space Administration. The moon rocks and debris were sealed inside a special canister to avoid contamination.
It wasn’t clear when the linkup would occur. After the transfer, the ascent module would be ejected and the capsule would remain in lunar orbit for about a week, awaiting the optimal time to make the trip back to Earth.
Chinese officials have said the capsule with the samples is due to land on Earth around the middle of the month. Touchdown is planned for the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, where China’s astronauts have made their return in Shenzhou spacecraft.
Meanwhile, in a move to enhance public-private partnerships, a Colorado-based start-up Lunar Outpost won a NASA contract to complete a mission to collect lunar samples.
NASA wants to pay companies for individual collections of lunar regolith, or Moon soil, between 50 grams and 500 grams. The agency explicitly outlined it is only paying companies to collect material and say where NASA can find it on the moon’s surface – not to develop the spacecraft or return the regolith to Earth.
Lunar Outpost is one of the three companies that NASA selected on Thursday as winning bidders. The other two winners were California-based Masten Space Systems, which proposed a $15,000 mission in 2023, and Tokyo-based ispace, which proposed a pair of $5,000 missions in 2022 and 2023.
“The companies will collect the samples and then provide us with visual evidence and other data that they’ve been collected, and then ownership will transfer and we will then collect those samples,” NASA acting associate administrator Mike Gold told reporters in a press conference. “The objective [of these collection missions] is twofold: There is important policy and precedent that’s being set, both relative to the utilization of space resources, and the expansion of the public and private partnerships beyond Earth orbit to the moon.”
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