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China has launched its most complex robotic lunar mission to date, as the space race with the United States intensifies.

China has launched its most complex robotic lunar mission to date, as the space race with the United States intensifies.

(CNN) — China on Friday launched an unmanned lunar mission aimed at bringing samples from the far side of the moon for the first time, in a move that could be crucial to the country’s ambitious space program.

The Chang’e-6 probe, China’s most complex robotic lunar mission to date, marks a major milestone in the country’s endeavour To become a dominant space powerWith plans to send astronauts to the moon in 2030 and build a research base at its south pole.

The launch of the probe on a Long March-5 rocket from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island in southern China comes at a time when a growing number of countries, including the United States, are looking at the strategic and scientific benefits of expanding lunar exploration in an increasingly competitive field.

In a 53-day mission, the Chang’e-6 lander will land in a huge crater on the far side of the moon, which never faces Earth. China became the first and only country to land on the far side of the Moon during its 2019 Chang’e-4 mission.

Any far-side samples captured by the Chang’e-6 lander could help scientists glimpse the evolution of the Moon and the solar system itself, providing important data to advance China’s lunar ambitions.

“The purpose of Chang’e-6 is to develop the design and control technology of lunar retrograde orbit, intelligent sampling, take-off and ascent technologies, and automatic return of samples on the far side of the Moon,” said Ge Ping, deputy vice president. Director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of the China National Space Administration, from the launch site last week.

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An ambitious mission

The Chang’e-6 probe will be a major test of China’s space capabilities as it seeks to fulfill leader Xi Jinping’s “eternal dream” of turning the country into a space power.

China has made rapid progress in space in recent years, in a field traditionally led by the United States and Russia.

With the Chang’e programme, launched in 2007 and named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology, China in 2013 became the first country to achieve a robotic landing on the moon in nearly four decades. In 2022, China completed its own orbital space station Tiangong.

The technically complex Chang’e-6 mission builds on the record landing of Chang’e-4 on the far side of the Moon in 2019 and the success of Chang’e-5 in 2020, which returned to Earth with samples from the Moon.

On this occasion, to communicate with the Earth from the far side of the Moon, Chang’e-6 relies on the Qiqiao-2 satellite, which was launched into lunar orbit in March.

The probe consists of four parts: an orbiter, a lander, an ascent module, and a re-entry module.

The mission plan is for the Chang’e-6 lander to collect lunar dust and rocks after landing in the vast Antarctic Basin, which has a diameter of about 2,500 kilometers, a crater formed about 4 billion years ago.

An ascender spacecraft will then transfer the samples to the Lunar Orbiter for transfer to the reentry module and the mission’s return to Earth.

According to James Head, a professor emeritus at Brown University who collaborated with the Chinese scientists leading the mission, this complex mission “includes almost all the steps” needed for Chinese astronauts to land on the moon in the coming years.

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In addition to returning samples that could provide “fundamental new knowledge about the origin and early history of the Moon and the Solar System,” the mission also serves as “an automated rehearsal for these steps” to take astronauts to the Moon and back. He said.

China plans to launch two more Chang-e series missions as it approaches its 2030 goal of sending astronauts to the moon before building a research station in the next decade at the moon’s south pole, an area believed to contain water ice.

Chang’e 7, scheduled to launch in 2026, aims to search for resources at the moon’s south pole, while Chang’e 8, about two years later, could study how lunar materials were used to prepare for building the moon. Research base, as reported by Chinese authorities.

Competitive space

Friday’s launch comes as many countries are ramping up their lunar programs amid growing interest in access to deep space resources and the exploration that successful lunar missions can achieve.

Last year, India landed its first spacecraft on the moon, while Russia’s first mission to the moon in decades ended in failure when its Luna 25 probe collided with the lunar surface.

In January, Japan became the fifth country to land a spacecraft on the moon, although the Moon Sniper lander encountered power issues due to an incorrect landing angle. The following month, IM-1, a NASA-funded mission designed by a private Texas-based company, landed near the South Pole.

The landing, the first for an American-made spacecraft in more than five decades, is one of several commercial missions planned to explore the lunar surface before NASA tries to return American astronauts there in 2026 and build its science base camp.

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Last month, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson appeared to acknowledge that China’s pace and concern about its intentions were the reason behind the US urgency to return to the moon, after decades of manned Apollo missions.

“We believe that a lot of their so-called civilian space program is a military program. And I think, in fact, we’re in a race,” Nelson told lawmakers last month, adding concern about the possibility that China might try to ban the United States. The United States or other countries can access certain areas on the moon if they get there first.

China has long advocated the peaceful use of space and, like the United States, has sought to use its space prowess to promote goodwill internationally.

This time, China said the Chang’e-6 mission will carry scientific instruments or payloads from France, Italy, Pakistan and the European Space Agency.