A Chinese probe sent to bring back rocks from the Moon has collected the first samples since landing on the surface yesterday afternoon, officials confirmed.
The Chang’e 5 probe touched down shortly after 15:00 GMT on Tuesday after descending from an orbiter, the China National Space Administration said.
Images released by the Chinese government show a barren scene at the landing site, with the lander’s solar panels fully deployed shown in shadow.
Plans call for the robotic lander to spend about two days drilling into the lunar surface at the landing site in the Oceanus Procellarum – or Ocean of Storms – and collecting two kilograms (4.4lbs) of rocks and debris.
After the rocks have been gathered, the lander will return to orbit and transfer the samples to a capsule for return to Earth before Christmas.
Video shared on Chinese social media platform Weibo claim to be of the moment of drilling on the surface of the Moon
Images released by the Chinese government show a barren scene at the landing site with the lander with its solar panels fully deployed shown in shadow
This is the latest venture by an increasingly ambitious Chinese space programme that hopes to eventually land an astronaut on the lunar surface.
If it succeeds, it will be the first time scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rocks since a Soviet probe in the 1976 that returned six ounces of rock.
Chinese samples are expected to be made available to scientists from other nations, although it is currently unclear how much access NASA will have, given tight US government restrictions on space co-operation with China.
From the rocks, scientists hope to learn more about the Moon, including its precise age, as well as increased knowledge about other bodies in our solar system.
The mission has to be completed within one lunar daytime – about 14 Earth days – as the probe is not equipped to withstand the freezing night.
The Chang’e-5 probe set off for the Moon on November 24 from Wenchang spaceport in southern China.
American and Russian space officials congratulated the Chinese launch, with NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, describing it as ‘no easy task’
‘When the samples collected on the Moon are returned to Earth, we hope everyone will benefit from being able to study this precious cargo that could advance the international science community,’ he said.
The probe is targeting a 4,265-foot high volcanic complex called Mons Rumker on the Moon’s near side, in a region known as Oceanus Procellarum, which is Latin for Ocean of Storms.
This shows an image taken by camera aboard Chang’e-5 spacecraft during its landing process
This artists impression shows what the lander would look like on the surface of the Moon as it begins the process of drilling for rock samples
The area is ‘very unusual and nowhere near where we landed before,’ said James Head, professor of geological sciences at Brown University.
‘It raises really important questions, because these samples are actually going to tell us how young the moon had volcanic activity, which is an indication of how recently it has been geologically active, a critical question in the evolution of the planets.’
The most recent return of lunar rocks to Earth was carried out in 1976 by Luna 24, a Soviet robot probe and saw about six ounces return to the planet.
US astronauts brought back 382kg (842lb) of lunar samples from 1969 to 1972, some of which is still being analysed and experimented on.
The Chang’e 5 flight is China’s third successful lunar landing, following Chang’e 4 that was the first probe to explore the surface of the far side of the Moon.
Chinese space programme officials have said they envision future crewed missions along with robotic ones, including possibly a permanent research base.
This shows the Chang’e-5 spacecraft landing on the Moon where it will work to gather rock samples and fly them back to Earth before Christmas
China has launched its Chang’e-5 probe into space, which will set down on the moon to collect samples from the lunar surface
No timeline or other details have been announced for these future and more ambitious missions – although they will be competing with NASA and others.
NASA plans to send the first woman and the next man to the surface of the Moon as early as 2024 and establish a research base over the course of the next decade.
The latest flight includes collaboration with the European Space Agency, which is helping to monitor the mission.
China’s space programme has proceeded more cautiously than the US-Soviet space race of the 1960s, which was marked by fatalities and launch failures.
In 2003, China became the third country to send an astronaut into orbit on its own after the Soviet Union and the United States.
It also launched a crewed space station which is currently under development.
CHINA STEPS UP PLANS TO BECOME SPACE SUPERPOWER WITH MARS AND MOON MISSIONS
Officials from the Chinese space agency are working to become a space superpower alongside the US and Russia.
They have already sent the first mission to the far side of the Moon – sharing photos from the part of our nearest neighbour we rarely see.
Chang’e-6 will be the first mission to explore the south pole of the Moon and is expected to launch in 2023 or 2024.
Chang’e-7 will study the land surface, composition, space environment in an overall mission, according to the Chinese space authority, while Chang’e-8 will focus on technical surface analysis.
China is also reportedly working on building a lunar base using 3D printing technology.
Mission number eight will likely lay the groundwork for this as it strives to verify the technology earmarked for the project and if it is viable as a scientific base.
The CNSA is also building an Earth-orbiting space station where Chinese astronauts will conduct scientific experiments, similar to the crew of the ISS.
The agency is also launching a mission to Mars in summer 2020 which will see them land a rover on the surface of the red planet.