UPDATE: The official state-run Chinese press has announced that the ascent capsule with the lunar samples has lifted off from the Moon. The rendezvous and docking is next, which is likely the most difficult technical task for the autonomous unmanned probe. No word yet on when that will occur.
The new colonial movement: China’s Chang’e-5 lunar lander has completed its sample collection on the Moon, and is set to lift-off sometime today for a rendezvous and docking with its return vehicle in lunar orbit.
The milestone signaled the start of the mission’s return voyage, which includes an ambitious series of automated maneuvers to blast off from the lunar surface Thursday and rendezvous with an orbiter circling the moon. Chang’e 5 will attempt the first-ever docking between two robotic spacecraft in lunar orbit, then transfer the moon rock container into the return craft.
If all goes according to plan, Chang’e 5’s sample container should re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and parachute to a landing in China’s Inner Mongolia region around Dec. 16.
If successful, this will the ninth spacecraft to bring samples back from the Moon, and the first since the 1970s. It will also firmly establish China as a major space power that is presently competitive to the U.S. and has also bypassed Russia completely. Even though it is likely they stole much of the technology for doing such planetary missions, China’s engineers have done a good job of refining and improving the engineering, as shown by the number of firsts being achieved by this Chang’e-5 mission.
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