The moon’s volcanic past isn’t the only mystery Chang’e-5 will try to illuminate. The landing site can “test a variety of other fundamental hypotheses,” said James Head III, planetologist at Brown University.
A better understanding of the mineral composition of the rocks and soil near Mons Rümker could answer the question why this region has such unusually high and as yet unexplainable concentrations of certain elements, namely potassium, rare earth metals and phosphorus. , and exhibits a conspicuous radioactive aberration due to the elements thorium and uranium. “There are some very good fundamental questions that need to be answered that will change our idea of the moon forever,” says Head.
The mission could also contribute to the calibration of timescales in the history of the solar system. The number and size of the craters in a particular region of the moon say something about the age of the rock, because impact craters regularly accumulate in an area over time. Accurate dating of the new soil samples provides insight not only into the age of the lunar surface but also of other crater-studded celestial bodies in the solar system, the ages of which are often determined by comparing them to similar regions on the moon.
The new dating “could challenge a variety of theories and assumptions and raise new questions” about the origin of our planetary environment, says Clive Neal, an expert in the geology of the moon at the University of Notre Dame.
Soil samples and soil investigation
Chang’e-5 will take soil samples in two ways. A special instrument will drill to a depth of almost two meters in the lunar crust and in addition stone and debris will be removed from the lunar surface with a shovel. Back on Earth, the precious cargo will be transferred in a hermetically sealed container to the Chinese Lunar Soil Sampling Laboratory, part of the National Astronomical Observatory in Beijing. Scientists from this institution will analyze the mineralogical and chemical composition of the material, including measuring the presence of certain radionuclides (isotopes subject to radioactive decay) to determine its age precisely.
According to Long, the mission is a major event for lunar scientists and planetologists in China. “We will receive new soil samples from the Moon that are ours and that we can study (…) and that will inspire young students and scientists to careers in planetology and space travel.”
It is still unclear whether these samples will be shared with scientists outside China. According to Karl Bergquist, head of international cooperation for the European Space Agency (ESA), there are talks between ESA and the China National Space Agency about sending samples to other labs, but no agreement has yet been reached.
However, according to Bergquist, the ESA will be involved in the mission, “providing support through our deep space network during the critical initial phase and later with additional support during critical phases of the mission.”
The scientific instruments on board the lander are similar to those of the ongoing Chang’e-4 mission, which saw a landing on the “backside” of the moon for the first time in history. Using a bottom radar, scientists will be able to discern rock layers hundreds of meters deep in the lunar crust, helping them learn more about the geological past of the landing site. With an image spectrometer, an instrument that is also on the Chang’e-4 has been used to map rocks from the deeper mantle of the moon, the soil composition at the landing site will be determined and water-bearing minerals will be searched.
The Apollo-like approach with which Chinese are retrieving its ‘moon rocks’ indicates that the country is committed to developing the technologies it will need for even more ambitious missions. “This is just one mission in a long and planned series of Chinese robotic missions to study the lunar surface,” says Logsdon.
After the successful missions of the lunar orbiters Chang’e-1 in Chang’e-2, the landers Chang’e-3 and the robber Chang’e-4, China has plans in place to further investigate the south pole of the moon. If Chang’e-5 successfully completes its mission, an identical spacecraft (Chang’e-6) attempt to return soil samples from the South Pole to Earth. Scientists are particularly interested in the lunar South Pole, given the large amounts of water ice detected in this region and the presence of one of the solar system’s largest impact craters, the South Pole-Aitken Basin.
Also the more advanced spacecraft Chang’e-7 in Chang’e-8 will visit the Lunar South Pole, where they will analyze the region and test new technologies, including the exploration and mining of resources that could be useful for future manned missions, such as water and hydrogen. They will also test the possibility of making 3D prints on the lunar surface. The long-term goal is to establish an International Moon Research Station by the year 2030, to support robotic missions and any manned space travel.
“Multiple manned and unmanned missions are being deployed to eventually enable China to undertake a manned lunar landing mission,” Logsdon said.
To gain more experience in manned space travel, China will begin construction of its third, largest and most advanced space station in low Earth orbit in 2021. The new Chinese space station should last for about ten years and provide the country with valuable expertise in this field, which is needed to transport people to other destinations in space.
The Chang’e missions are also the foundation for future robotic missions to other planets and moons. Already is the Chinese orbiter and rover Tianwen-1 bound for Mars, where the spacecraft will study the chemical composition, magnetic field, and structure of the Red Planet’s crust. And Chang’e-5 is an important step towards a daring future mission to return soil samples from Mars to Earth, a goal set in China’s space program for the second half of this decade. In addition, a mission is planned to collect soil samples from an Earth-close asteroid and return them to Earth.
“The increased ability to conduct space exploration will provide more opportunities for exploration of the solar system,” said Long.
This article was originally published in English on NationalGeographic.com
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