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A rocket just blasted off for a rendezvous with the moon

China has launched its latest mission to the moon with the aim of collecting and returning rock samples from beneath the lunar surface.

The Chang’e 5 mission began with a Long March 5 rocket launch from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province — around 1,400 miles south of Beijing — at 12:30 p.m. PT on Monday, November 23 (4:30 a.m. on Tuesday local time).

The last rock-gathering moon mission was achieved by the Soviets in 1976, and before that only the U.S. has returned samples via its Apollo program, so much is riding on China’s uncrewed effort.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) believes the samples will help scientists to learn more about how our nearest neighbor came to be, while at the same time giving the space agency the opportunity to try out new technology for more challenging missions in the future.

About a week from now, China’s orbiter will send a lander and an ascender down to the lunar surface where it will spend a couple of days using a drill and a robotic arm to collect samples from two meters below the ground. The material will then be transferred to an ascent vehicle that will depart the moon and dock with the return vehicle for the trip back to Earth. The entire mission is expected to take just over three weeks.

“The biggest challenges are the sampling work on the lunar surface, take-off from the lunar surface, rendezvous and docking in the lunar orbit, as well as high-speed re-entry to Earth,” Pei Zhaoyu, a spokesperson for the mission, said in comments reported by the South China Morning Post.

China has already made two landings on the moon with its Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 missions, while a Chang’e 5 test mission six years ago showed that it’s capable of completing a successful return journey to Earth.

In other activities demonstrating China’s growing interest in space exploration, the country earlier this year sent a spacecraft to Mars, marking the first time for a mission to send an orbiter, a lander, and a rover to Mars at the same time. The spacecraft is set to reach the red planet in February 2021 — around the same time as NASA’s Perseverance rover and another mission launched by the United Arab Emirates.

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