The Chinese mission to bring back lunar samples ended successfully on 16 December 2020. The capsule containing samples taken in the Ocean of Storms landed and was found by the ground teams.
The Chang’e 5 mission started on 24 November by taking off from the Wenchang space centre on the island of Hainan on top of a CZ-5 launcher. On 1 December, the lander section of the Chinese probe landed in the Ocean of Storms and started a robotic collection of samples on and below the surface. Two days later, the ascent stage took off from the Moon to meet the orbiting section in orbit and transfer the precious samples to it.
On the section which remained in the Ocean of Storms, a mechanism unfurled a small Chinese flag, enabling a very symbolic photo to be taken.
The complex Chang’e 5 mission diagram recalls the principle of a rendezvous in lunar orbit applied by the American Apollo manned lunar flights, although carried out automatically in this case (see this article).
FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 1976
The orbiter with the capsule housing the lunar samples headed back to Earth on 13 December. Three days later, the capsule entered the atmosphere, carrying out a re-entry with a bounce, as the diagram below shows.
The subsequent return took place by parachute. The Chinese state channel CGTN reported this phase of the mission live as well as the search operations in Inner Mongolia. In a press release, the Chinese CNSA agency stated that the capsule landed on 17 December at 1.59 a.m., Beijing time (the evening of 16 December for mainland France). The ground teams, despite a snow-covered landscape, arrived at the landing site fairly quickly (tweet from CGTN below with a video).
Ground crews gather around China's Chang'e-5 returner after its successful return to Earth with samples from the Moon. pic.twitter.com/bsepEKH84O
— CGTN America (@cgtnamerica) December 16, 2020
In the images broadcast, the return capsule appears in good condition, which suggests that the samples have not been contaminated by the terrestrial environment. This is the first time since 1976 (the unmanned Soviet Luna 24 mission) that lunar samples have been brought back to Earth.
The Chang’e 5 mission was designed to bring back two kg of lunar samples. The opening of the sealed container which holds them will be carried out in a specialised laboratory.
It should be noted that the European Space Agency (ESA) took part in this mission and in its return phase by providing monitoring of Chang’e 5 telemetry via the receiver stations of Kourou and Maspalomas (ESA diagram below).