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China has become the first country to extract rocks from the far side of the moon

China has become the first country to extract rocks from the far side of the moon

China brought a capsule filled with lunar soil from the moon’s far side to Earth on Tuesday, marking the latest success in an ambitious agenda to explore the moon and other parts of the solar system.

The sample, which was recovered by the China National Space Administration’s Chang’e-6 lander after a 53-day mission, highlights China’s growing capabilities in space and marks another victory in a series of lunar missions that began in 2007 and have been carried out nearly so far. Without fault.

“Chang’e-6 is the first mission in human history to return samples from the far side of the Moon,” Long Xiao, a planetary geologist at the China University of Geosciences, wrote in an email. He added: “This is a major event for scientists around the world, and a cause for celebration for all of humanity.”

Such sentiments and the prospect of international exchange of lunar samples have highlighted the hope that Chinese robotic missions to the Moon and Mars will advance scientific understanding of the solar system. These possibilities contrast with views in Washington and elsewhere that see Tuesday’s achievement as the latest milestone in the 21st century space race with geopolitical overtones.

In February, a privately operated American spacecraft landed on the moon. NASA is also pursuing Artemis’s campaign to return Americans to the lunar surface, although its next mission, an astronauts’ circumnavigation of the moon, has been delayed due to technical problems.

China is also looking to expand its presence on the moon, landing more robots there, and eventually human astronauts, in the coming years.

To achieve this goal, it took a slow and steady approach, implementing an automated lunar exploration program it had created decades earlier. Named after the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e (pronounced “chung-ah”), the program’s first two missions orbited the Moon to photograph and map its surface. Then came Chang’e-3, which landed on the near side of the moon in 2013 and deployed the Yutu-1 rover. It was followed in 2019 by the Chang’e-4 spacecraft, which became the first vehicle to visit the far side of the Moon and place the Yutu-2 rover on the surface.

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One year later, the Chang’e-5 spacecraft landed, sending nearly four pounds of nearby lunar regolith back to Earth. This achievement made China only the third country – after the United States and the Soviet Union – to achieve the complex orbital design to collect a sample from the moon.

According to Yuki Qian, a lunar geologist at the University of Hong Kong, the Chang’e-5 and Chang’e-6 maneuvers are test operations for China’s future manned missions to the Moon, which, like the Apollo spacecraft missions, are test runs. In the 1960s and 1970s, we had to land and then launch humans from the moon.

While China works to send astronauts to the moon, China’s long-term strategy brings scientific benefits to understanding the solar system.

The Chang’e-5 sample was younger than lunar material collected by the Americans or the Soviets in the 1960s and 1970s. It consists mainly of basalt, or cooled lava from ancient volcanic eruptions.

Two Chinese-led research teams I finish Which The basalt was about two billion years old, suggesting that volcanic activity on the Moon extended at least a billion years beyond the time frame inferred from the American Apollo and Soviet Luna samples.

Other studies of the material have ruled out theories about how the temperature of the Moon’s interior could rise enough to generate volcanic activity. One research group is found The amounts of radioactive elements in the moon’s interior, which can decay and produce heat, were not high enough to cause explosions. last a result He ruled out water in the mantle as a possible source of the internal melting that led to volcanism.

Chang’e-6 was launched on May 3 with even greater scientific ambitions: bringing back material from the far side of the Moon. The near side of the moon is dominated by wide, dark plains where ancient lava flowed. But the far side has fewer such plains. It also has more pits and a thicker crust.

Because this hemisphere never faces Earth, it is impossible to communicate directly with landers on the far side of the Moon, making it difficult to reach successfully. The Chinese space agency relied on two satellites it had previously launched into lunar orbit, Qiqiao and Qiqiao-2, to maintain contact with Chang’e-6 during its visit.

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The spacecraft used the same technology used by Chang’e-5 to reach the Moon and then return its sample to Earth.

Then he stowed the materials away. The mission deployed a miniature rover that captured a photo of the lander with a small Chinese flag flying. Then, on June 3, a rocket launched the sample canister back into lunar orbit. The material was then collected again on June 6 by a spacecraft that remained in orbit and prepared to begin the journey back to Earth.

The sample container re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on Tuesday, then parachuted onto the surface of the Siziwang Banner area in Inner Mongolia, where ground crews worked to recover it.

When scientists acquire the soil of the far side, they will compare the composition of the newly recovered basalt with that of the near side of the Moon. This may help them deduce how the Moon’s volcanic activity caused its halves to evolve differently.

The mission team will also search for material from the surrounding areas, which has been pushed away from their original locations due to collisions with comets and asteroids. If these collisions were strong enough, they may have excavated material from the Moon’s lower crust and upper mantle, Dr. Qian said. This could lead to insights into the structure and composition of the Moon’s interior.

Molten rock from those impacts could also give clues about the age of the Antarctica-Itkin Basin and the era in which it formed, during which scientists believe a barrage of asteroids and comets bombarded the inner solar system.

This period “completely changed the geological history of the Moon,” Dr. Qian said, and was also “a crucial period for Earth’s evolution.”

Clive Neal, a planetary geologist at the University of Notre Dame, described the goals as lofty, but he is looking forward to the discoveries that will follow the sample’s return. Referring to the series of lunar successes achieved by China so far, he said: “It is excellent.” “More power to them.”

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However, tense political relations will make it difficult for American scientists to cooperate with Chinese researchers in studying distant specimens.

The Wolf Amendment, passed in 2011, prohibits NASA from using federal funds for bilateral cooperation with the Chinese government. Federal officials recently granted the space agency a waiver, allowing NASA-funded researchers to apply for access to the near-side sample recovered by Chang’e-5. But another bill was passed by the US House of Representatives in June It will ban universities that have research ties with Chinese institutions From receiving funding from the US Department of Defense.

For the future, China has its eyes on the Moon’s south pole, where Chang’e 7 and 8 will explore the environment and search for water and other resources. It hopes to send manned missions to the Moon by 2030. Eventually, China plans to build an international base in Antarctica.

NASA’s Artemis campaign is also targeting the Moon’s south pole. Bill Nelson, director of the space agency, has previously referred to the parallel programs as a race between the United States and China.

Many scholars reject this framework. Dr. Neal said resources devoted to studying the Moon declined after American astronauts beat the Soviets to the moon in 1969. “I don’t like international space races, because they’re not sustainable,” he said. “The race has to be won. Once you’ve won it, what’s next?”

“I think it’s important to look at space as something that can bring us together, rather than divide us,” he added.

Several countries contributed payloads that flew with the Chang’e-6 mission, including France and Pakistan. Chinese researchers considered this a good sign for the future.

“Moon exploration is a common endeavor for all humanity,” Dr. Xiao said, adding that he hopes for increased international cooperation, “especially between major spacefaring countries such as China and the United States.”