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Chang'e 5 finishes collection of lunar samples

By ZHAO LEI | | Updated: 2020-12-03 09:27
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The lander-ascender combination of China's Chang'e 5 robotic lunar probe finished gathering lunar samples and packed them in a vacuum container on Wednesday night, much earlier than expected, according to China National Space Administration.

The administration said in a statement on Thursday morning that the autonomous collection and packing processes took about 19 hours and concluded at about 10 pm Wednesday. All samples – rocks and soil – had been enclosed inside a container carried by the ascender.

The lander-ascender combination landed in a region north of Mons Ruemker, a mountain overlooking a vast lunar mare called Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms, on the western edge of the moon's near side, at 11:11 pm on Tuesday, becoming the third spacecraft to successfully touch down on the lunar surface this century. The first two that achieved this feat — Chang'e 3 and 4 — were also from China.

Project planners have allowed the lander-ascender combination to work about two days on the moon to accomplish its major tasks -- using a drill to obtain underground samples from 2 meters beneath the surface and a mechanical arm to gather surface dirt.

Experts explained that planners needed to leave sufficient time for the craft to perform the sophisticated collection operations in case of possible malfunctions, adding that the completion ahead of schedule indicates related apparatus worked very well.

Before the drilling operation began, the lunar soil measurement instrument mounted on the lander surveyed and analyzed the subsurface structure of the drilling point to prepare for the drilling.

During the entire collection process, engineers synchronized a full-scale simulation on mock lunar soil inside a laboratory in Beijing based on data of the real landing site's environment sent back by the lander-ascender combination in an attempt to observe and support Chang'e 5's operations on the moon, according to the space administration.

The next step in this landmark mission will involve the ascender, which will use its 3,000-newton-thrust engine to lift itself to lunar orbit to rendezvous and dock with the reentry capsule. It will transfer the lunar samples to the module and then separate from it.

The orbiter-reentry capsule combination, which is travelling in lunar orbit at an average altitude of about 200 km, will later return to Earth orbit, where the pair will break up, and the reentry capsule will conduct a series of complicated maneuvers to return to a preset landing site in the North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region in mid-December.

In an earlier statement, the administration said the processes of drilling for and packing samples from 2 meters beneath lunar surface finished at 4:53 am on Wednesday.

Chang'e 5, China's largest and most sophisticated lunar probe, was launched by a Long March 5 heavy-lift carrier rocket early on Nov 24 at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, setting out on the world's first mission since 1976 to return lunar samples to Earth.

The spacecraft has four main components — an orbiter, lander, ascender and re-entry capsule.

Before touching down on the moon, the spacecraft separated into two parts — the orbiter-reentry capsule combination and the lander-ascender combination — while in lunar orbit early Monday morning.

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