The last time Moon rocks were collected by a spacecraft was more than four decades ago. But this month, China will be launching the last Chang'e mission and return to Earth with rocks from the far side of the Moon.

The Chang'e missions, named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, is a series of robotic missions to the Moon by the China National Space Administration. The first four missions included landers, rovers, and lunar orbiters.

The missions began in 2007 when the Chang'e-1 lunar orbiter was launched. Three years later, the second orbiter followed.

By 2013, the Chang'e-3 included a lander and the Yutu rover that successfully soft-landed on the Moon. Part of the mission included observations of the Earth's plasmasphere, stars, and galaxies.

Exploring the Far Side of the Moon

In January last year, the Chang'e-4 mission's land and the Yutu-2 rover landed at the far side of the Moon known as the South Pole-Aitken Basin. The upcoming mission is expected to collect up to four pounds of Moon rock samples.

Planetary geologist Carolyn van der Bogert shared that significant technological capability is required for the Chang'e-5 mission. The last time lunar samples were collected was from American and Soviet missions during the 1960s-1970s.

The new samples may reveal new insights on the Moon's evolution, its place in the solar system, and its relationship with the Earth over billions of years. Scientists may also discover accurate dates of nearby planetary surfaces such as Mars.

Chang'e-5 will have four main components - a lander, ascender, orbiter, and returner. When the spacecraft enters the lunar orbit, it will land near the volcanic region called Mons Rümker in the north. The robot will then drill up to 6.5 feet into the ground and scoop up lunar material.

Once the samples are stored in the ascender, the robot will get ready for lift-off and return to Earth. The descent and ascent will take about two weeks on Earth, which is about one day on the Moon.

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Rewriting Lunar History

The team has faced many technical challenges over the years, especially after the initial launch in 2017 didn't push through due to Long March-5's engine failure, one of China's launch rockets. Other challenges include harsh space weather that could cause damage to any of the equipment or a possible crash-land on the moon. Despite all that could go wrong, the team remains hopeful.

When the samples return to earth, some will be analyzed by scientists while others will be publicly displayed shared the Chang'e-5 team. The lunar missions decades ago determined that there may have been volcanic lava two billion years ago. Xiao Long from the China University of Geosciences said that the new samples could rewrite the Moon's history.

James Carpenter from the European Space Agency shared that China's upcoming mission is also "a good rehearsal for future human exploration." NASA has been continually working for the Artemis Moon Mission to send the next man and first woman to the Moon by 2024. China is also planning human missions to the Moon by 2030.

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