China to launch sample return mission to the far side of the Moon – maybe next week

And hatches 2030 plan to beat US for Mars rock retrieval

China's space program will next week launch mission that aims to land on the Moon, take samples, and bring them back to Earth.

The Chang'e-6 probe and the Long March-5 Yao-8 rocket that will carry it into space were moved to a launchpad at the Wenchang Space Launch Site on Saturday. China's National Space Agency named "early May" as the likely launch window – other reports name May 3 as the expected launch date.

Whenever it flies, Chang'e-6 will make its way to a region on the far side of the Moon near the south pole – a region felt to offer clues about the satellite's evolution.

The mission is complex, as it comprises an orbiter, lander, ascender, and re-entry module. But China's done this before – Chang'e-6 was built as the backup to Chang'e-5, and the latter mission ended in triumph.

The lander is equipped with a drill and a scoop. Mission plans call for those tools to acquire around two kilograms of Moon stuff, which will be loaded into the ascender. That craft will connect with the re-entry model to bring bits of Luna to Terra.

The mission is scheduled for 53 days from go to woah – 30 days longer than Chang'e-5’s sortie – and will require retrograde orbits of the Moon.

According to the South China Morning Post, China is also considering a Mars sample return mission. The Alibaba-owned Post last week reported that Wu Weiren, chief designer of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, told a conference that it plans to launch a craft called Tianwen-3 in 2030.

The mission plan calls for twin launches: one to carry a lander and ascent vehicle, and the other to haul an orbiter and return vehicle to Mars.

The most efficient round trips to Mars require over 500 days travel time, so even if China manages to launch Tianwen-3 in 2030 it would be several years before it returns with any red rocks.

But even a 2033 return would spank NASA, which – due to tech and funding woes – is struggling to design a sample return mission that would return to Earth by 2040.

If China is first to bring back a chunk of Mars, the moniker "red planet" could take on a new meaning. ®

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