It is in space exploration that the future for mankind lies
Marsha Freeman
China launches the Chang'e-5 lunar probe from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in the southern province of Hainan. /Xinhua

China launches the Chang'e-5 lunar probe from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in the southern province of Hainan. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Marsha Freeman is the technology editor of Executive Intelligence Review magazine and the author of several books on space including, "How We Got To the Moon: The Story of the German Space Pioneers." The article reflects the author's views, and not necessarily those of CGTN.

The Chang'e- 5 mission to return samples of soil and rocks from the Moon is under way, following its launch on a Long March 5B heavy lift rocket. This sample return mission is the final and most complex of the six missions in the lunar exploration program that Chinese scientists developed 20 years ago. 

The scientists are able to carry out programs over decades because they are a key part of the economic fabric of Chinese society, particularly with the present orientation toward an innovation-driven economy. 

Chang'e-1 and 2 were each single-spacecraft, which orbited the Moon. Their job was to provide scientists with photographs of the surface to be used in future missions to choose suitable landing spots. 

Chang'e-3 was followed by children as well as by adults, especially curious about the exploits of the rover Yutu. Chang'e-4 for the first time in history landed on the far side of the Moon. A relay satellite was needed to allow communication between Chang'e-4 and Earth. 

Chang'e-5 is still more complex. The goal of the mission is to bring at least 2 kilograms of rocks and soil from the Moon. There will also be a few locations where a drill will go down deeper and retrieve soil. Ye Peijian, the chief designer of Chang'e-1, notes: "Chang'e-5 will also carry a drilling machine to get Moon rock from a depth of 2 meters underground." Ye also revealed that experts from Hong Kong and Macao would also participate in the lunar probe project. 

The biggest challenge in the mission is to bring back the samples to Earth. To do this requires four vehicles, a service module, a return vehicle, the lander, and the ascent vehicle. The Chang'e-5 orbiter carries the collection hardware and the return vehicle. After the robotic lunar lander collects samples, they are placed in an ascent vehicle which will launch from the lunar surface and must rendezvous and dock with the orbiter. No other sample return mission by the Soviet Union did any robotic rendezvous and docking. This requires highly precise timing. If the orbiter or the ascent vehicle were off by a small amount, they would miss rendezvous with the orbiter. When the orbiter gets close to the Earth, the capsule with the samples will be released to land in the same region where the Shenzhou astronauts land. 

When the samples come back they will undergo thorough study. Lunar soil is formed by the lunar rock which has been weathered by meteorite impact, solar wind bombardment and cosmic ray radiation. By studying these lunar soil materials, scientists can not only understand the geological evolution of the Moon, but will also provide them with greater understanding of solar activities. 

This effort will be of immense benefit for mankind. Space exploration has always provided the "new frontier" of science ever since Sputnik and the U.S. Apollo program. Unfortunately, because of the intense media hype in the West about the "China threat," cooperation between the U.S. and China in manned space has come to a halt. And most recently the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in a report, "China's Space and Counterspace Capabilities and Activities," wants to place even further restrictions on such cooperation.

Many U.S. analysts find this terribly short-sighted. China military analyst Joan Johnson-Freese notes that "Ham-fisted U.S. policy has proven counterproductive in the past, and will continue to do so in the future." Nevertheless, with the change of administrations there may be a rethinking of our overall policy toward China. One would hope that it also involves a rethinking of our refusal to cooperate with China in space. It is in space exploration that the future for mankind lies. 

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