China probe lands on moon’s far side in first-ever sample retrieval mission

The Chang’e-6 landing marks China’s second descent on the far side of the moon, where no other country has reached.

China has landed an uncrewed spacecraft on the far side of the moon, overcoming a key hurdle in its landmark mission to retrieve the world’s first rock and soil samples from the dark lunar hemisphere.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) said in a statement that the Chang’e-6 touched down in the South Pole-Aitken Basin at 6:23am Beijing time on Sunday after completing a multistage landing process.

The craft’s mission, which was guided by a relay satellite to navigate the side of the moon that is always facing away from Earth along with an array of tools and its own launcher, “involves many engineering innovations, high risks and great difficulty”, according to the sapce agency.

After another landing in 2019, this is China’s second descent on the far side of the moon, where no other country has reached.

The mission seeks to use a robot arm and a drill to collect 2kg (4.4lb) of lunar material over up to three days. After collection is complete, the craft will join up with another spacecraft in lunar orbit to facilitate its return to Earth, with a landing in China’s Inner Mongolia region expected around June 25.

If the samples make it safely back, they will provide China and the world with new insights into the formation of the solar system and differences between the unexplored side of the moon and its better-understood side facing Earth. Chinese scientists will first have access to the material, followed by international peers.

China has also had a successful sample retrieval mission from the near side of the moon, having brought back 1.7kg (3.7lb) of material using the Chang’e-5 mission in 2020.

The emerging power is planning three more uncrewed missions this decade as part of a broader strategy that wants to see Chinese astronauts walking on the moon by around 2030.

The United States also aims to put astronauts back on the moon for the first time in over half a century, with NASA planning to launch its Artemis 3 mission in 2026 at the earliest.

The US plans heavily rely on private sector rockets, including those by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, to launch spacecraft.

They have been repeatedly delayed, with technical issues delaying the planned launch of NASA and Boeing’s Starliner, which is meant to become the second US space taxi to low-Earth orbit.

Also on Saturday, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa cancelled a private mission around the moon, which was supposed to have used SpaceX’s Starship, citing uncertainties in the rocket’s development.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies