Long March 5 rocket launch

Chang’e 6 Successfully Launched Towards the Dark Side of the Moon

On May 3, 2024, a CNSA Long March 5 rocket launched the Chang'e 6 lunar mission, which aims to return the first samples from the far side of the Moon

The Chang’e 6 (CE-6) lunar soil sample return mission was successfully launched on Friday, May 3, 2024, at 9:27 UTC (5:27 a.m. EDT, 5:27 p.m. Beijing Time). The Long March 5 Y8 heavy-lift rocket lifted the probe from the Wenchang Space Launch Center, Hainan province, China

The components of CE-6 were previously transported to Haikou, the capital of Hainan province, by two military cargo planes. After assembling the rocket, prelaunch checks occurred at the coastal launch complex.

Long March 5 rocket launch
Long March 5 rocket launch. Credits: CNSA

Zhang Yang, managing engineer of the Chang’e 6 mission, declared that team members wanted to ensure good probe conditions also in the course of the Spring Festival during the Lunar New Year.

“This is the first time that I am not celebrating the Spring Festival with my family, and I wish all my family members good health in the Year of the Dragon,” said at CCTV Zhu Rongkuan, a young team engineer.


Mankind’s first samples from the far side of the moon

Initially designed as a backup to Chang’e 5 (which launched in 2020), CE-6 comprises four components; an orbiter, a lander, an ascender, and a re-entry capsule, concurring to an 8200 kg launch mass and 3200 kg landed mass. The operational process mimics the predecessor’s.

The probe – named after the Chinese Moon Goddess 嫦娥, who in the myth stole the elixir of immortality from her husband, Yi, and took it to the moon – will initially reach the lunar orbit. Afterward, the orbiter and re-entry module will remain in orbit while the lander and ascender will approach the moon’s surface. The combination lander/ascender will perform a soft landing.

Artistic impression of Chang'e 6 in lunar orbit. Credits: CGTN
Artistic impression of Chang’e 6 in lunar orbit. Credits: CGTN

Scientific exploration of the landing area will consist of collecting lunar rocks and soil using both a scoop and a drill. Once this phase is concluded, the ascent vehicle will elevate the samples to the lunar orbit from atop the lander, and dock with the re-entry section.

Finally, the samples will be transferred to this module, which will return to Earth. The forecast on mission duration suggests a 53-day odyssey. Chang’e 6 breakthroughs include automatic sample collection, take-off, and ascent from the far side of the moon

To ease the communication between Chang’e 6 and Earth, the 1200-kilogram Queqiao 2 relay satellite, has been positioned in a highly elliptical 200 by 16,000-km lunar orbit. 


International collaboration onboard

CNSA announced that France, Italy, and the European Space Agency along with Sweden, participated with scientific instruments onboard the lander, while the orbiter contains a Pakistani payload. The mission aims to grab 2,000 grams of material. International payloads consist of:

  • Detection of Outgassing RadoN (DORN) from France, to estimate lunar crust outgassing along with its contribution to the lunar exosphere.
  • Negative Ions at the Lunar Surface (NILS), developed by Sweden with ESA, to detect negative ions from our satellite’s surface, resulting from solar wind interaction.
  • INstrument for landing-Roving laser Retroreflector Investigations (INRRI), which is a passive laser retro-reflector similar to the one lost with ESA’s Schiaparelli ExoMars lander on Mars’s surface.
  • ICUBE-Q cubesat, developed in collaboration between Pakistan and Shanghai Jiaotong University.

The samples will be made available to both Chinese and international institutions.

The service module will take part in an extended mission, as in the CE-5 case, that reached Lagrange point 1, the closest point to the Sun in China’s space exploration.


Importance of the landing site

Chang’e 6 will collect samples of material ejected from the lunar mantle, potentially enhancing our knowledge of the Moon, Earth, and the whole Solar System.

The landing zone selected is the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin, roughly 2,500 km in diameter, located in the southern part of the Apollo basin (150-158° W, 41-45° S). The ejecta fragments are expected to consist of mantle and young basaltic material, respectively 2.40 Gyr-year-old and 3.43 Gyr-year-old.

Shaded-relied map generated from Chang’e 1 data, indicating the Chang’e 6 landing zone, SPA, along with the Apollo crater
Shaded-relied map generated from Chang’e 1 data, indicating the Chang’e 6 landing zone, SPA, along with the Apollo crater. Credits: CNSA and CAS

Even though previous missions from the USA, former USSR, and China have gathered lunar samples, none has ever been obtained from the dark side of our satellite. This lunar hemisphere, which is slowed down by Earth’s tidal locking, is never visible from the ground. Previous exploration only consisted of photography, the first being a Soviet probe in 1959. This is until the Chang’e 4 mission, which landed in the Karman crater in the SPA basin in January 2019. 


Further exploration ahead

Together, Chang’e 6,7, and 8 have the task of collecting lunar samples on the far side of the moon, as well as investigating water presence at the moon’s south pole, looking forward to the establishment of a basic lunar research station in this region. CE-7 is set to launch in 2026, including payloads from 11 countries.

Three of the Queqiao 2 payloads will also contribute to its experiments. Between them: an extreme ultraviolet camera, an array neutral atom imager, and an Earth-moon length baseline Very Long Baseline Interferometry.

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Pietro Costantini

Pietro Costantini

Space Engineering master student at Politecnico di Milano, Space enthusiast, cycling addict

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