China's Chang'e-6 capsule returns with lunar loot from the far side

Now to figure out if it really is rich in useful stuff that could fuel further exploration

China's Chang'e-6 re-entry capsule reached Earth on Tuesday after a 53-day mission to the far side of the Moon. And it came back with a sample onboard.

The probe was the first ever to touch down in the region when it did so in early June – collecting samples on its quick two-Earth-day visit, before heading back to the blue planet.

After a parachute-assisted landing in Inner Mongolia, China's National Space Administration (CNSA) announced the re-entry capsule "operated normally, marking the complete success of the Chang'e-6 mission of the lunar exploration project and the world's first return of samples from the far side of the Moon."

After ground processing, the lander will be airlifted to Beijing to remove the sample container and its contents. Those contents are expected to include up to 2kg of dust and rocks from Luna. China has said it will share scientific data and access to samples with the international community.

The samples come from the far side of the Moon's largest impact crater, the South Pole–Aitken basin (SPA basin). The far side of the Moon is thought to have a significantly different geological history compared to the near side, meaning different materials are present.

The area is abundant in helium-3 and has significant deposits of water ice in its permanently shadowed craters, as well as elements and minerals that could come in handy should humans ever be stationed on their natural satellite.

Exploring the far side of the Moon remains a challenge, however. Its position, permanently out of sight from Earth, requires relay satellites for communication. China's space program managed some of this process by using automation.

That same shielding from Earth's view that makes the far side a hindrance to landing also makes it an ideal location for radio telescopes that could observe the universe without interference from terrestrial radio signals.

Chinese president Xi Jinping issued his congratulations and referred to the event as "another landmark achievement in China's endeavor to become a space and sci-tech power."

The event – and Xi's comments – have raised eyebrows among those closely following the modern space race between the US and China.

In April, US Space Force boss Chance Saltzman warned a Senate hearing: "The most immediate threat, in my opinion, is the pace with which our strategic challengers – first and foremost the Chinese – are aggressively pursuing capabilities that can disrupt, degrade, and ultimately even destroy our satellite capabilities and disrupt our ground infrastructure." ®

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