The launch of the Chinese lunar probe Chang'e-6 as the space race with the United States intensifies

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Wenchang/Hong Kong

China launched an unmanned lunar mission on Friday, aiming to bring samples from the far side of the moon for the first time, in a potentially major step forward for China's ambitious space program.

Chang'e-6 probe China The most complex robotic lunar mission to date – lifted off on a Long March-5 rocket from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, where space enthusiasts gathered to witness this historic moment. The country's National Space Administration said the launch was successful.

The launch marks the beginning of an important milestone that aims to be a major milestone in China's quest to become a leading nation The dominant space power With plans to send astronauts to the moon by 2030 and build a research base at its south pole.

This comes with an increasing number of countries, Including the United Statesthey look to the strategic and scientific benefits of expanding lunar exploration in an increasingly competitive field.

China's planned 53-day mission will see the Chang'e-6 lander land in a wide 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 retrieved by the Chang'e-6 lander could help scientists look back on the evolution of the Moon and the solar system itself — and provide important data to advance China's lunar ambitions.

“Chang'e-6 aims to achieve breakthroughs in lunar retrograde orbit design and control technology, intelligent sampling, lift-off and ascent technologies, and automatic return of samples on the far side of the Moon,” said Ge Ping, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of the Moon. To the China National Space Administration last week from the launch site.

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The Chang'e-6 probe will be a major test of China's space capabilities as part of its efforts to realize 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 project Tiangong orbital space station.

Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

The mission aims to collect samples from the far side of the moon, as part of an ambitious program that includes plans for a manned lunar mission by 2030.

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

This time, to communicate with Earth from the far side of the Moon, Chang'e-6 must rely on the Queqiao-2 satellite, which was launched into lunar orbit in March.

The probe itself consists of four parts: an orbiter, a descent vehicle, an ascent vehicle, and a reentry module.

The mission plan is for the Chang'e-6 lander to collect moon dust and rocks after landing in the sprawling Antarctic Basin about 2,500 kilometers in diameter, 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.

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The complex mission “goes through virtually all the steps” that would be required for Chinese astronauts to land on the moon in the coming years, according to James Head, a professor emeritus at Brown University who cooperated with Chinese scientists are leading the mission.

In addition to returning samples that could yield “fundamental new insights into the origin and early history of the Moon and the Solar System,” the mission also serves as “automatic rehearsal for these steps” to take astronauts to the Moon and back, he said.

Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Space enthusiasts gathered to watch the launch from Hainan Island in southern China

China plans to launch Two more tasks In the Chang-e series as it approaches its 2030 goal of sending astronauts to the moon before building a research station in the next decade on 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 look at how lunar materials could be used to prepare for building the research base, it said. Chinese officials stated. he Said.

Friday's launch comes as multiple countries ramp up their lunar programs amid a growing focus on access to resources and greater access to deep space exploration that successful lunar missions can bring.

last year, India landed The first Russian spacecraft on the moon, while the first Russian mission to the moon in decades ended in failure Luna 25 probe crash To the surface of the moon.

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In January, Japan became the fifth country to land a spacecraft on the moon, though Moon landing sniper I had power problems due to the incorrect landing angle. The following month, IM-1, A A mission funded by NASA The probe, designed by a private Texas-based company, landed near the South Pole.

The landing — the first by an American-made spacecraft in more than five decades — is among several planned commercial missions aimed at exploring the lunar surface before NASA tries to return American astronauts there. As soon as 2026 And build its scientific base camp.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson last month seemed to acknowledge that China's pace — and concerns about its intentions — were driving the American urgency to return to the moon, decades after the manned Apollo missions.

“We think that a lot of the so-called civilian space program is a military program. I actually think we're in a race.” Nelson Tell Lawmakers last month expressed concern that China might try to prevent the United States or other countries from accessing certain areas on the moon if it gets there first.

China has long maintained that it supports the peaceful use of space, and like the United States, looks forward to using its space prowess to promote goodwill internationally.

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

“China hopes to strengthen cooperation with its international counterparts and deepen international cooperation in the field of space,” Ge of the China Aerospace Administration told reporters a day before the launch.

CNN's Saun Deng contributed reporting.

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