China’s Chang’e-6 probe returns to Earth with first-ever samples from far side of the moon

China’s Chang’e-6 probe returns to Earth with first-ever samples from far side of the moon

The Chang’e-6 probe being successfully launched from China’s Wenchang Spaceport in Wenchang, Hainan Province, China, on May 3, 2024. 

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China’s Chang’e-6 lunar probe returned to Earth on Tuesday, bringing back the first-ever samples from the unexplored far side of the moon.

The re-entry capsule landed in the northern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia at 2:07 p.m. local time, according to a Google-translated update from the China National Space Administration (CNSA), which declared the mission a “complete success.”

Chang’e-6 returned to Earth with soil collected from the South Pole-Aitken Basin — a massive crater in the lunar hemisphere that always faces away from Earth.

The probe landed on the moon on June 2, took off again on June 4 and then spent 13 days in the moon’s orbit before returning to Earth. In total, Chang’e-6 mission took 53 days from its May 3 departure from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan, an island off China’s south coast.

The probe will be airlifted to Beijing where its cabin will be opened and sample container removed.

The return of Chang’e-6 comes within months of India landing its Chandrayaan-3 mission safely on the moon’s unexplored south pole in August last year. The so-called “dark side” of the moon has long captivated attention — it is always secluded from Earth’s view because it is tidally locked and finishes one complete rotation in the same time it takes to circle Earth. The far side of the moon was first captured in images in 1959 by the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft.

Chinese President Xi Jinping conveyed his congratulations to the CNSA for “another landmark achievement in my country’s efforts to build a space power and a scientific and technological power,” according to a Google translation of the leader’s message, shared by the space institute.

Chang’e-6’s predecessor, Chang’e-5, successfully returned in 2020 after unfurling the first Chinese national flag on the moon. It had set out to collect roughly 2kg of lunar regolith. The feat turned China into just the third country — after the U.S. and Soviet Union — to achieve lunar sampling at the time, although it is not yet exactly known what it successfully brought back.

Beijing’s ambitions span wider, with China previously outlining plans to land an astronaut-crewed mission by 2030.

National space programs have long served as symbols of international prestige, culminating in the 20th century race between Cold War rivals the U.S. and Soviet Union to pioneer and evolve spaceflight capabilities. Washington scored a critical victory when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon in July 1969.

Space programs have remained fixtures of substantial public interest and expenditure, with world government financing for such initiatives hitting a record $117 billion in 2023, according to Statista data. Despite this, the U.S.’ renowned NASA has had to tighten its budget requests.

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