Several days after taking off on what's described as a "heavy-lift" Long March 5 rocket, the Chang'e 5 sample return spacecraft of China entered on Saturday, orbit around the moon.

Reports on this latest development said it moved "into position for a descent to the lunar surface, in a bid to collect specimens and return them to Earth.

The China National Space Administration said, Chang-e 5 spacecraft fired its top engine at 7:58 am EST, for a 17-minute burn to move "into an oval eight-hour orbit around the moon."

The lunar orbit insertion maneuver covered a five-day journey from the heart since the November 23 launch of Chang'e 5.

The spacecraft was set to carry out additional burns over the weekend to achieve a circular 200-kilometer orbit around the moon, setting the stage for parting of the landing module of the mission for computerized descent to the lunar surface.

Science Times - Chang’e 5 Spacecraft Decelerates, Enters Lunar Orbit
(Photo : Kaynouky on Wikimedia Commons)
Elevation map of the Moon with the localization of the landing sites of successful sample return missions and the designated landing region of Chang'e 5. The darker regions have low elevation, while the brighter regions have high elevation. The map was made by NASA.

Attempt to Bring Back Samples in More than Four Decades

Chinese officials have not disclosed yet, when the Chang'e 5 lander is going to touch down the moon, although landing, they said, could take place as soon as Sunday.

Chang'e 5 is trying to bring back the first samples from the moon in more than four decades. If the attempt succeeds, China would be the third of the nations, following the United States and the former Soviet Union to collect rocks from the surface of the moon and return them to Earth.

The lander's mission will aim a touchdown near a volcanic formation known as Mon Rümker, that extends over 4,000 feet above the surrounding lava plains.

The landing site of Chang'e 5 is located in the Ocean Storms or Oceanus Procellarum, a region found in the near side of the moon's northern hemisphere.

After it lands, the surface mission of Chang'e 5 will take place during a daylight's two-week window at the landing site, enabling solar energy to power the spacecraft.

Expected Landing in Mid-December

According to reports, Chang'e 5 will extract up to two kilograms of material from a depth of a maximum of 6.6 feet below the surface.

Then, the samples will launch back into lunar orbit aboard a small rocket, rendezvous with a return craft, and head for Earth.

In addition, the return carrier will enter the atmosphere again, at some 40,000 kilometers per hour, considerably faster than a "re-enter from low Earth orbit."

Furthermore, the capsule is set to land around the middle of December in the Inner Mongolia region of China, where teams will collect moon samples and transport them to a laboratory for evaluation.

In an interview just after the launch of Chang'e 5, University of Notre Dame lunar scientist Clive Neal said, through its previous missions, China proven it can land on the moon. However, he added, "they have to collect the sample."

Younger Rocks and China's Prior Chang'e 5 Missions

There is evidence that rocks in the landing zone of Chang'e 5 are much younger compared to those brought back by the Apollo astronauts.

Such specimens are said to be 3.5 billion years old, created during the period when volcanism was active during the first billion years of existence of the moon.

Lava plains to the Mons Rümker's east seem to be less battered by the impacts of asteroids, suggesting that rocks there could be below two billion years old.

Before the Chang'e 5 mission, China had succeeded in dispatching four robotic explorers to the moon, starting with Chang'e 1 and Change'e 2 orbiters, respectively, in 2007 and 2010.

Then, in 2013, it landed the Chang'e 3 mission on the moon using a mobile rover that drove through the lunar surface.

ALSO READ: China Moon Mission Attempts to Return to Earth First Lunar Rocks in Four Decades

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