Chinese state news agencies are reporting a successful landing of the Chang’e-5 lunar robotic lander, which will seek to return lunar rock samples back to Earth. The launch took off on November 23, and attained lunar orbit on November 28. It launched the lander vehicle on November 30, and the reports today from the China National Space Administration (CNSA) says that at shortly after 10 AM EST it achieved its goal of touching down on the moon’s surface intact.
China’s Chang’e-5 mission will be the third ever to bring back soil or rock samples from the moon — only the U.S. and the former Soviet Union have accomplished that so far. The mission landed on the side of the moon closest to the Earth (which is always the same side, since the moon is locked in its orientation during its orbit around our planet).
This landing starts a clock that has a pretty fixed duration in terms of the next steps for the mission — the lander doesn’t actually have a heater unit on board, so it can’t withstand the lunar night. That means it will have to collect the samples it hopes to return within a period spanning the next 14 Earth days, with a potential landing planned for around December 16 or 17 (which means, coincidentally, that if everything goes to plan, China will have its moon rocks back to study just in time for our debut TC Sessions: Space event).
This isn’t the only extraterrestrial sample return mission going on right now — a Lockheed Martin-designed probe successfully retrieved samples from near-Earth asteroid Bennu just last month, and will seek to return those with a trip beginning next March. NASA has also launched its Mars sample-return mission, using the Perseverance rover it launched in July.