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China Lands on Moon’s Far Side in Historic Sample-Retrieval Mission

China Lands on Moon's Far Side in Historic Sample-Retrieval Mission

China successfully landed an uncrewed spacecraft, Chang’e-6, on the far side of the moon on Sunday, marking a significant achievement in its mission to retrieve rock and soil samples from the moon’s dark hemisphere. This milestone enhances China’s status in the global space race, where countries like the United States aim to exploit lunar minerals to support long-term astronaut missions and establish moon bases in the coming decade.

The Chang’e-6 craft, equipped with a variety of tools and its own launcher, landed in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, a massive impact crater on the moon’s space-facing side, at 6:23 a.m. Beijing time (2223 GMT). The China National Space Administration (CNSA) highlighted the mission’s engineering innovations and high-risk factors, emphasizing the importance of the payloads carried by the lander for scientific exploration.

This mission represents China’s second successful landing on the far side of the moon, an area known for its deep craters and communication challenges. Experts described the landing as particularly risky due to the lack of direct line-of-sight communications and the need for complex automation, especially at high latitudes where long shadows can confuse landing systems.

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Launched on May 3 from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island, the Chang’e-6 probe reached lunar orbit a week later and prepared for its landing. This mission is the third lunar landing this year, following Japan’s SLIM lander in January and a lander from US startup Intuitive Machines in February.

China aims to collect 2 kg (4.4 pounds) of lunar material using a scoop and drill over two days. The samples will then be launched back into space, rendezvous with another spacecraft in lunar orbit, and return to Earth, with a landing expected in Inner Mongolia around June 25. These samples will provide a pristine record of the moon’s history and offer new insights into the solar system’s formation, allowing for a comparison between the dark far side and the Earth-facing side of the moon.

China’s lunar strategy includes plans for its first astronaut landing around 2030, in collaboration with Russia. This follows the 2020 Chang’e-5 mission, which successfully returned samples from the moon’s nearer side. Meanwhile, the US Artemis program aims for a crewed moon landing by late 2026 or later, relying on partnerships with other space agencies and private companies like SpaceX. Despite recent setbacks, such as the cancellation of a private moon mission by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and the postponement of Boeing and NASA’s Starliner crewed launch, the global interest in lunar exploration and the race to harness its resources continue to intensify.