Jan 13, 2015 09:55 PM EST
China's space program has achieved a new milestone with its missions to the moon, as its latest spacecraft service module has entered orbit around the moon, months after being used in the country's test flight that sent a prototype sample-return capsule on a flight around the moon and back to Earth.
The service module from China's circumlunar test flight arrived in orbit around the moon this week, according to Chinese state media reports. The craft is flying in an eight-hour orbit that carries it within 125 miles of the lunar surface at its closest point to its highest range of 3,293 miles. According to chief engineer Zhou Jianlian of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, the module will make its second and third braking in the early hours of January 12 and January 13, Beijing time. Doing so will enable the module to enter a 127-minute orbit around the moon, Zhou says.
Earlier reports noted that a camera system is onboard the service module, designed to help Chinese scientists identify future landing spots for the upcoming Chang'e 5 mission that hopes to return lunar samples from the moon's surface back to Earth.
China's test lunar orbiter launched on October 24, circling the moon during its eight-day mission. On November 1, the service module ejected a return capsule that parachuted to Earth that same day. After the release of the capsule, the service module made its way to the Earth-Moon Lagrangian position where it completed three circles around that point prior to heading for lunar orbit. This marks a milestone for China's space program, as no Chinese spacecraft has reached the L2 point ever before.
"It was the first time for a Chinese spacecraft to reach the L2 point, and the service module completed three circles around the point, expanding probe missions," vice director of China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), Zhao Wenbo says.
According to ground controllers, the service module contains support systems, and are operating smoothly with the module now orbiting the moon collecting data that they hope will prove useful in planning the Chang'e 5 lunar missions, set for 2017.
Chang'e 5 is planned to be a robotic sample-return mission, aimed at making a soft landing on the moon and then scooping up several points of lunar rocks and soil to bring back to Earth for study by Chinese scientists.
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