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China's Moon-sample test mission returns successfully to Earth

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Nov 1, 2014, 18:46 UTC

Sen—Chinese space scientists are celebrating the success of a lunar mission that was designed to test a spacecraft that will eventually collect lunar rock samples and return them to Earth.

The eight-day mission, dubbed Chang’e 5 T1, did not itself land on the Moon. Instead the China National Space Administration (CNSA) flew its spacecraft around the back of the Moon before bringing part of the probe—the lunar return vehicle—to a parachute landing in Mongolia on Friday night.

The flawless flight, which included the taking of a stunning photo of the Earth and Moon together, paves the way for a future Chang'e to land on the Moon and collect samples of soil and rock with its robotic arm before taking off to carry its precious cargo home.

Chang’e 5 T1 was launched on 23 October by a Long March 3c/E rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre. It followed previous missions by Chang'e 1 and 2, which went into orbit around the Moon, and Chang'e 3 which made a soft landing in December 2013 and deployed a rover called Yutu.

The mission was designed to prepare for Chang'e 5 which is expected to land on the Moon in 2017. Before then, another probe Chang'e 4 will be launched to put another rover on the Moon.

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Chinese space officials inspect the return vehicle, its hull blackened by the heat of re-entry. Image credit: Xinhua

As it made its four-day journey to the Moon, the Chang'e 5 T1 probe made two course-correction manouevres that would take it around the back of the Moon and back to Earth. Then as it flew to a distance of 12,000 km (7,500 miles) from the lunar surface, its cameras recorded images of the Moon and the Earth.

Just one of three possible further course corrections was needed to put the spacecraft on target for its landing in Inner Mongolia. Then on Friday, the service module and return vehicle separated and the service module fired its engine to prevent it from re-entering and to keep it operating in space.

About 20 minutes after separation, the return vehicle re-entered the atmosphere at a speed of 11 km (7 miles) per second, with its heat shield protecting it. It then practised a skip pattern that lifted it briefly out of the atmosphere again and back for a second re-entry to reduce heating and help slow it down so that its parachute could be deployed.

Scientists did not waste space in the return vehicle. Instead of the moonrocks that will be carried in future, this model was filled with several samples to allow testing on how the space environment affects plants, seeds and organisms.

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