CHINA is preparing to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the Moon on a mission to retrieve moonstones from the surface.
This will be any country’s attempt to take invaluable samples from Earth’s natural satellite in about 45 years.
Named after the ancient Chinese Moon goddess, the Chang’e-5 probe will try to gather materials that will help scientists learn more about its origins.
The launch, which will take place in the next 48 to 72 hours, will also test the superpower’s ability to take samples from space remotely, rather than more complex missions in the future.
If successful, it will make China the third country to receive moon samples decades ago, after the US and the Soviet Union.
During the Apollo program that first placed humans on the Moon, the US brought back 842 pounds of rock and earth, landing 12 astronauts in six flights from 1969 to 1972.
The Soviet Union performed three successful robotic sample return missions in the 1970s.
The last one – Luna 24 – just six ounces sampled from Mare Crisium or “Sea of Crises” in 1976.
Scheduled to launch in the next few days, China’s probe will attempt to collect more than 4lb of samples in a previously unvisited area known as the Oceanus Procellarum, or ‘Ocean of Storms’.
“While the Moon’s Apollo-Luna specimen region is critical to our understanding, it was carried out in an area that covers much less than half the lunar surface,” said James Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island.
Subsequent data from orbital remote sensing missions showed a wider variety of rock types, mineralogy, and ages than represented in the Apollo-Luna specimen collections.
“Lunar scientists are advocating robotic sample return missions to these many different critical areas to address a set of fundamental questions left over from previous discoveries,” the expert said.
The new task could help answer questions such as how long the Moon remained volcanically active inside and when its magnetic field – the key to protecting any form of life from the sun’s radiation – dissipated.
Once in orbit, the probe will aim to place a pair of tools on the surface: a descent will pierce the ground, then transfer the soil and rock samples to an ascent that will take off with an orbital module and dock.
If this is successful, the samples will be transferred to a return capsule that will return them to Earth.
China made its first lunar landing in 2013, and six years later the Chang’e-4 probe landed on the far side of the Moon, the first ever made by spacecraft of any country.
Over the next decade, China plans to build a robotic base station to conduct unmanned exploration in the south polar region.
Why are moonstones so special?
Mineralogically, most moon rocks are fairly straightforward matters.
Common moon minerals include silicates composed of silicon and other elements such as calcium, aluminum, oxygen, magnesium and iron.
However, they are so rare that they are worth an absolute fortune.
NASA evaluated the value of rocks at around £ 30,800 per gram in 1973.
This works well over £ 250,000 per gram in today’s currency.
By comparison, one gram of gold is worth about £ 45.
However, it is illegal to sell them, even if you somehow get hold of them.
“No Apollo Moon rocks or loose amounts of Moon powder have been legally sold,” said Robert Pearlman, editor of Collectspace.com.
“There is no specific law dealing with moon rock ownership, but the United States sees instances as a national treasure and government property under the laws that apply to theft of such falls.”
It will be developed in the 2020s with the Chang’e-67 and 8 missions and expanded until the 2030s before manned landings.
China plans to sample Mars by 2030.
In July, China launched an unmanned probe to Mars on its first independent mission to another planet.
China’s Lunar mission comes just a month after it was reported that the US Space Force will one day send humans into space and build its own Moon base powered by robots.
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US Space Command leader John Shaw said he sees space soldiers as part of the military’s future plans.
“At some point, yes, we’re going to put people into space,” Shaw told virtual attendees at the AFWERX Engage Space Conference, C4ISRNET reported.
“They may be using a command center in the lunar environment or elsewhere where we continue to run the architecture that is largely autonomous.”