Chinese sample return capsule lands on Earth after round-trip flight to moon

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EDITOR’S NOTE: We will have an updated story after recovery teams secure the sample return capsule.

An aerial infrared view of the Chang’e 5 mission’s sample return capsule after landing in Inner Mongolia. Credit: CGTN

A capsule containing moon rocks landed in a remote, snow-covered corner of China Wednesday, bringing home the first samples from the lunar surface in 44 years and completing the Chinese space program’s most challenging robotic mission to date.

The return module appeared to have landed intact in China’s Inner Mongolia region, according to infrared imagery broadcast on Chinese state television.

Chinese officials confirmed the roughly 660-pound (300-kilogram) capsule landed in a statement released shortly after 1 p.m. EST (1800 GMT) Wednesday, or 2 a.m. Thursday in Beijing.

Recovery crews dispatched to the remote landing zone were traveling in helicopters and off-road vehicles across the snow-covered plains of Inner Mongolia to reach the capsule, which landed in the middle of the night, local time. After retrieving and securing the capsule, ground teams plan to transport the module to Beijing, where scientists will open the sample carrier and begin analyzing the moon rocks.

The Chang’e 5 mission’s return to Earth capped a 23-day mission that successfully launched on China’s most powerful rocket Nov. 23, landed on the moon Dec. 1, collected samples, then took off again Dec. 3 to accomplish the first automated docking between two robotic spacecraft around another planetary body.

Chang’e 5’s ascender vehicle linked up with the mission’s return spacecraft Dec. 5, then transferred the capsule containing the moon rocks to the return craft before jettisoning and intentionally crashing into the moon Dec. 7.

With those steps completed, all that was left was to bring the lunar samples back to Earth.

Chang’e 5’s return spacecraft fired thrusters to raise its orbit around the moon on Friday, then performed a final departure maneuver at 8:51 p.m. EST Saturday (0151 GMT Sunday) to head for Earth, according to the China National Space Administration. The 22-minute maneuver with four small thrusters provided the impulse necessary for the Chang’e 5 return craft to break free of the moon’s gravity.

The probe completed a course correction burn Monday and continued cruising toward Earth Tuesday, aiming for a landing in China’s Inner Mongolia region Wednesday.

Chinese officials did not disclose the exact landing time in advance, but public notices directing pilots to steer clear of the mission’s recovery zone were active from 12:32 p.m. until 1:07 p.m. EST (1732-1807 GMT).

Chang’e 5’s return spacecraft released the capsule carrying the moon rocks before entering the atmosphere.

The re-entry capsule was designed to bounce off the atmosphere in a “skip re-entry” to slow the craft down before landing, diminishing its initial entry velocity from 25,000 mph, or 40,000 kilometers per hour, significantly faster than a re-entry from low Earth orbit. The skip re-entry also helped reduce heat the landing capsule will encounter during descent, Chinese officials said, before the craft deployed a parachute for landing.

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