China Wants Lunar Answers with Chang’e 5
published during a waning crescent moon.
China Wants Lunar Answers

Credit: NASA/Zuber, M.T. et al., Nature, 2012

The huge crater, named after the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, is two miles deep and more than 12 miles wide. The small tilt of the lunar spin axis means Shackleton’s interior is permanently dark and very cold. Researchers have long thought that ice might collect there.

The moon’s speckled surface is a familiar comfort, its mannish face beaming at us as it puppeteers our cycles. But it’s got a frosty side, too: amidst its poles’ battered pocks, scientists have spotted ice deposits.

To us, ice is boring — something that we slip on, or clink into our glasses to survive a sticky summer. On the moon, though, ice is a mystical treasure worthy of an Indiana Jones-like lit pedestal. Now China, replete with rugged garb, will investigate the frigid poles with a deft new probe named Chang’e 5.

The Chang’e lunar program has been whirring for years, but it wasn’t until the last couple that this particular limb kicked into gear. This mission: Launch an unmanned orbiter to the moon, collect lunar samples, and boomerang them back to Earth. The spacecraft will join lunar lander Chang’e 3 and a rover named Yutu from earlier stages of the program that are still humming along taking snapshots on the moon. Chang’e is named after the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology.

China Wants Lunar Answers

Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences / China National Space Administration / The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration / Emily Lakdawalla

This is a mosaic of six images captured by the Yutu rover in 2014.

If one thing’s certain, it’s that we love going to the moon.

Launching in 2017, the Chang’e 5 probe, which reportedly has four modules, will land on the moon to collect samples of its rocky terrain. It will then take off from the surface and dock with the orbiter to transfer the samples stash. The ascent vehicle and orbiter will then separate, and the orbiter will merrily head back to Earth with its new valuables. Here is an illustrated video depicting the entire journey:

If one thing’s certain, it’s that we love going to the moon. Globally, humans have attempted over 120 missions to the moon, with nearly half being successful. But scientists are still sorting the gargantuan amounts of data from those trips, so the moon still remains a bit of a mystery.

That’s where China hopes to step in with sample return mission. Its ever-evolving Chang’e program first began almost a decade ago when the China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched its Chang’e 1 satellite into the moon’s orbit, followed by the engineering backup Chang’e 2, which even flew by asteroid Toutatis. The Planetary Society Emily Lakdawalla has a neatly organized rundown of all of the Chang’e missions.

China Wants Lunar Answers

Credit: CNSA

The moon’s craters are suspected to have come from impactors like meteorites, which upon impact would disperse their trove of elements, including hydrogen and oxygen.

For ice to still exist, the surface has to meet incredibly specific conditions. Anything that lands on the moon is exposed directly to vacuum, because the moon has no atmosphere, so it’s likely to scuttle back into space as water vapor while bypassing its liquid stage.

The moon’s low gravity can’t actually hold gas for terribly long, and the sun peeks around so much of the moon that for water ice to remain, it has to huddle in a permanent shadow, according to NASA’s National Space Science Data Center. That’s why the poles are so enticing for exploration: The Clementine lunar imaging mission from the mid-‘90s found the poles’ craters are estimated to hold at least 1.3 trillion pounds of water ice (which is about 600 million metric tons).

That makes them potentially desirable locations to become a refueling pit stop for spacecraft trekking even further into space, according to a recent report. China hasn’t announced plans for a manned mission quite yet, but CNSA continues to build its cosmic presence with a rover it hopes to plunk on Mars in 2020.