China Will Bring Moon Rocks Back to Earth in November

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China’s Chang’e-5 mission, in which a robotic lunar probe will land on the moon and retrieve a sample for researchers on Earth to study, is now slated for November, according to state media. It will be China’s first ever sample retrieval mission in space.

Chang’e-5’s development has entered the end of its flight model phase. The probe will launch aboard China’s Long March 5 rocket, the country’s most powerful rocket yet. After touching down on the moon, the lander will dig the moon’s surface and place samples in a vessel before transferring the vessel to a returner. Finally, the returner will bring these moon rocks back to Earth.

China’s previous lunar mission, Chang’e-3, managed to discover a new type of moon rock formed by volcanic activity. Next year, China also plans to send the Chang’e-4 lunar probe to the far side of the moon. This would be the world’s first soft landing on the moon’s dark side. Although spacecrafts have observed that side in orbit, no spacecraft or human has ever landed there.

Although no space programs around the world have plans in the near future to send people to the moon, China does have a vision beyond lunar exploration. Last August, it launched the world’s first quantum satellite, which has hacker-proof communication systems and propelled China ahead of space programs around the world. And last month, China’s space agency claimed that it had successfully tested EmDrive, or electromagnetic drive, a proposed technology that uses electromagnetic radiation in a microwave cavity to propel a spacecraft forward and travel at incredible speeds. Scientists around the world are very skeptical about these claims — but if it’s for real, it means China could travel to Pluto in just 18 months.

In addition, China has two operational space stations in Earth’s orbit. The country is quickly coming off its longest crewed mission ever. China even plans to land a probe on Mars in 2020.

If NASA wants to catch up or ensure its position in the space race, it’s questionable to what extent President Donald Trump will support NASA. On the plus side, Trump has embraced space exploration, and he has met with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and discussed sending people to Mars. On the other hand, he and other Republicans seem more in support of exploration from the private sector. The Chang’e-5 mission could be looked on later as a watershed moment in which China finally managed to turn the tides and put itself on track to dethrone America’s space dominance.

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