China landed a spacecraft on the moon Tuesday whose mission is to mine rocks and soil and return them to Earth, another in a series of lunar missions that demonstrates the country’s emergence as a force in space exploration.
The landing without a crew on board was China’s third on the lunar surface since 2013 and came almost two years after China pulled off a historic first – landing a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. And it comes as NASA is gearing up to send a series of scientific missions, and astronauts, to the lunar surface.
If China’s Chang’e-5 mission succeeds, it would mark the first time a nation has retrieved samples from the moon since the U.S. and Soviet Union did it several decades ago. The mission, which includes a lander, an ascent vehicle, a service capsule and a return capsule, was launched Nov. 23 on China’s powerful Long March 5 rocket.
Chinese state media reported Tuesday that the probe “successfully landed” at its landing site, an area called Oceanus Procellarum. China didn’t immediately announce any other details about the landing.
On the lunar surface, the probe is expected to dig some seven feet deep, collecting as much as 4.5 pounds of rocks and lunar soil into the ascent vehicle, which would then meet up with the service capsule in lunar orbit and return to Earth.
Once the material is back on Earth, scientists would be able to calculate its age and examine it to determine its composition.
On Twitter, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the science mission directorate congratulated China. “This is no easy task,” he wrote. “When the samples collected on the Moon are returned to Earth, we hope everyone will benefit from being able to study this precious cargo that could advance the international science community.”
As part of its lunar exploration mission, NASA has been working to get countries around the world to adopt what it calls the “Artemis Accords,” a legal framework that would govern behavior in space and on celestial bodies like the moon. The accords are named for NASA’s current lunar program, Artemis.
The rules would allow private companies to extract lunar resources, create safety zones to prevent conflict and to ensure that countries act transparently about their plans in space, while sharing their scientific discoveries.
So far, several countries have signed on to the bilateral agreements, which NASA says builds on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. But NASA is essentially prohibited from partnering with China in space activities and China is not among the signatories.
The Trump administration and conservatives have cast China’s ambitions as setting up a power struggle in space. During a speech last year, Vice President Pence directed NASA to dramatically speed up its mission to return astronauts to the moon from 2028 to 2024, calling it a new space race that mimics the Cold War drive to the moon under the Apollo program.
“Make no mistake about it: We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” he said in the speech. China’s landing on the far side of the moon, he said, “revealed their ambition to seize the strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent space-faring nation.”
The incoming Biden administration has said little publicly about its plans for NASA and space exploration, but several Democrats have said it plans to keep the Artemis mission, though on a timeline they said was more realistic.