A tale of two nations: See China blast off from the Moon as drone shows America's Arecibo telescope falling apart

Everyone has an off day, er, year, er, make that four years...


Videos Hours after Chinese state media showed the nation's Chang'e-5 probe successfully leaving the Moon, with lunar samples safely tucked away inside, US officials released the first footage of America's Arecibo telescope collapsing.

The juxtaposition of the two nations' space science capabilities started at 1510 UTC when Chang'e-5 unfurled a Chinese flag before its ascent vehicle left the Moon's surface with a six-minute engine burn that injected it into lunar orbit. On Saturday it will rendezvous autonomously with the probe's orbiter and wait for the right orbital window to return to Earth.

"An unmanned rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit will be a historic first. It will be very difficult," said Peng Jing, deputy chief designer of the Chang'e-5 probe at the China Academy of Space Technology, state media reports. You can see the launch in the video below.

Youtube Video

No firm date has been given for the sample's return, but - assuming the trans-Earth injection burn is successful - Chang'e-5 will be aimed at a landing site in Siziwang Banner, Inner Mongolia, which the Chinese space agency also uses for crewed landings.

The first samples of the Moon's surface, as any American school child knows, were collected by hand and delivered by Apollo 11. In the 1970s Russia sent back multiple samples using probes and Japan's second asteroid sampling mission is due to land in Australia on Sunday.

While China's feat is not new, it remains a mighty achievement is being celebrated as such by Chinese state media which has used the occasion to detail plans for further crewed and robotic Moon missions.

Meanwhile in the Land of the Free

By contrast, Thursday was a dismal day for US space science, as the National Science Foundation shared footage of the collapse of the Arecibo radio telescope that was once its pride and joy.

On December 1, the 900-ton platform suspended over the telescope came loose after retaining cables and support towers snapped, slamming the structure into the panels of the 1,000-foot 'scope itself below. The footage was recorded from the facility's control room, and by a camera-fitted drone above, capturing the dramatic end for what was, until 2016, the world's largest single-aperture radio telescope. Here is that video:

Youtube Video

According to Alessondra Springmann, a rocket scientist who worked at the observatory, the control room footage was recorded by a GoPro set up by the telescope's transmitter engineer Carlos Pérez, and the drone material was provided by its electronics technician Adrian Bague.

For over half a century Arecibo was a world leader, and was a scientific marvel of its time. It spotted the first neutron star and binary pulsar, and helped to make crucial discoveries about our Solar System by helping the first successful efforts to map a comet and asteroid.

It is also famous for blasting out the Arecibo Message, a 1,679-bit transmission aimed at the M13 star cluster in 1974. No one's expecting a reply any time soon, as the stars are 25,000 light-years away, though the message contained scientific formulae, a human image, and a picture of the telescope.

But by the turn of the century NASA reduced funding for the instrument and, despite attempts to find more money, maintenance schedules suffered and upgrades were delayed.

While newer telescopes offer good data, scientists had hoped to keep Arecibo running for a good few years yet.

But if aliens ever do come visiting, they won't find Arecibo there any more, even if they have conquered the light-speed barrier. Instead the telescope was decommissioned in November after earlier damage and then collapsed of its own accord anyway.

Not to worry though, because in 2016 Arecibo was eclipsed by an even larger radio telescope of its type: the 1,600-foot Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST). This state-of-the-art instrument has undergone nearly four years of testing and finally went fully live in January.

And who built and will operate it? China. ®

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