China becomes second nation to plant flag on moon during mission to gather rocks

China has become only the second country in the world to plant its flag on the moon, 50 years after the Americans did it first. 

The county’s spacecraft, named Chang’e 5, unfurled the flag as it lifted off from the moon on Thursday night, carrying lunar rocks which will be returned to Earth.

It’s the third Chinese spacecraft to land on the moon and the first to take off from it again as the country carries out a series of increasingly ambitious space missions.

The US planted the first flag on the Moon during the manned Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Five further US flags were planted on the lunar surface during subsequent missions up until 1972.

Chang’e 5 touched down on Tuesday on the Sea of Storms on the moon’s near side. Its mission was to collect about two kilograms of lunar rocks and bring them back to Earth, the first return of samples since Soviet spacecraft did so in the 1970s.

The ascent vehicle lifted off from the moon shortly after 11 p.m, Beijing time, Thursday and was due to rendezvous with a return vehicle in lunar orbit, then transfer the samples to a capsule. The moon rocks and debris have been sealed inside a special canister to avoid contamination.

After the transfer, the ascent module will be ejected and the capsule will remain in lunar orbit for about a week, awaiting the optimal time to make the trip back to Earth.

Chinese officials have said the capsule with the samples is due to land on Earth around the middle of the month. Touchdown is planned for the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

Chang’e 5’s lander, which remained on the moon, was capable of scooping samples from the surface and drilling two meters. It’s hoped it will have collected moon rocks billions of years younger than those perviously retrieved. 

The lander also was equipped to extensively photograph the area, map conditions below the surface with ground penetrating radar and analyse the lunar soil for minerals and water content.

Chang’e 5, named after the mythical Chinese Moon goddess, has revived talk of China one day sending astronauts to the moon and possibly building a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects.

China launched its first temporary orbiting laboratory in 2011 and a second in 2016. Plans call for a permanent space station after 2022, possibly to be serviced by a reusable space plane.

While China is boosting cooperation with the European Space Agency and others, interactions with NASA are severely limited by U.S. concerns over the secretive nature and close military links of the Chinese program.

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