Skip to Content
Space

China’s Chang’e 5 mission has successfully landed on the moon

The lander is expected to begin drilling operations very soon for lunar material that it will bring back to Earth
December 1, 2020
chang e 5
chang e 5
An animation of the Chang'e 5 lander on the moon.CNSA

China has just landed a new spacecraft on the surface of the moon. The mission, Chang’e 5, will collect lunar rocks and soil to bring back to Earth, as part of China’s first-ever sample return mission. 

What happened: China launched Chang’e 5 on November 23. On Sunday, while in lunar orbit, Chang’e 5 separated into two parts: an orbiter and return capsule that would remain in lunar orbit, and a lander and ascent stage that would make its way to the surface a couple of days later.

At around 10:13 a.m. Eastern Time today, the lander successfully landed at a site close to Mons Rümker, a volcanic formation in the Oceanus Procellarum region on the western edge of the near side of the moon. This area is thought to be home to lunar rocks that are a couple of billion years younger than those the Apollo program brought back. Chang'e 5 is expected to begin drilling into the lunar ground for subsurface samples almost immediately. 

Digging for moon rocks: Chang’e 5 will aim to scoop up at least four pounds of material from the moon. One-quarter will be from underground samples (about 6.5 feet deep), and the other three-quarters from surface material. Unlike its lunar rover predecessor, Chang’e 5 isn’t equipped with with any heating units to protect its more sensitive components from the frigid temperatures of the lunar night. That means the mission only has 14 days (the length of the lunar day) to properly gather samples before it freezes to death (figuratively speaking).  

In about 48 hours, the ascent vehicle will ferry the lunar samples up for a rendezvous with the orbiter, which will then place the samples into the return capsule and head back to Earth several days later. Upon nearing Earth, the orbiter will jettison the return capsule, which should land in Inner Mongolia by December 17.

Making history: At this point, China is no stranger to lunar missions. The country has pulled off four successful robotic missions to the moon, including the delivery of two rovers to the surface. Chang'e 5 is the third lunar landing for the country, but only its first ever sample return mission. Only the US and the former Soviet Union have ever brought lunar rocks back to Earth. If successful, this will be the first time in 44 years (since the Soviet Union’s Lunar 24 mission) that anyone has pulled off a lunar sample return mission.

Chang'e 6 is a follow-up lunar sample return mission that should launch in 2023. Though its ostensibly a backup to Chang'e 5, it would head toward the lunar south pole for samples instead of back to Mons Rümker should Chang'e 5 prove successful.

Deep Dive

Space

supermassive black hole at center of Milky Way
supermassive black hole at center of Milky Way

This is the first image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy

The stunning image was made possible by linking eight existing radio observatories across the globe.

Mapping the atmosphere on Mars can help advance science on our own planet

The Emirates Mars Mission is monitoring and measuring the climate and atmosphere of the red planet, but this effort also helps promote and advance science at a national level.

SpaceX Starship
SpaceX Starship

How SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket might unlock the solar system—and beyond

With the first orbital test launch of Starship on the horizon, scientists are dreaming about what it might make possible— from trips to Neptune to planetary defense.

space tourism concept
space tourism concept

Space is all yours—for a hefty price

Commercial spaceflight is now officially a thing. But is it a transcendent opportunity for the masses, or just another way for rich people to show off?

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.