China’s lunar-sampling robot has landed on the Moon

It's been more than 40 years since humans last harvested lunar dust.

Tingshu Wang / reuters

China’s Chang’e-5 probe touched down on the surface of the Moon Tuesday just before 10:30am ET, and it’s scheduled to spend the next few days collecting rocks and dust before heading back to Earth. Chinese state news outlets didn’t air the touchdown live, but they reported the landing afterward with a brief video showing the probe’s shadow encroaching on the pockmarked surface of the Moon.

If successful, the Chang’e-5 mission will mark China’s first sample-return Moon mission. It will also be the first time humans have harvested lunar rocks in 44 years.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union collected Moon material throughout the Space Race in the 1960s and ’70s, and US scientists are still studying these samples today. The US brought back 382kg of lunar dust and rocks during this time, and the Soviet missions returned less than half a kilogram.

The plan is for China’s Chang’e-5 robot to bring back 2kg of soil from the Moon. NASA’s science head Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen congratulated China on Twitter and urged researchers there to share the collected material with the global scientific community.

“When the samples collected on the Moon are returned to Earth, we hope everyone will benefit from being able to study this precious cargo that could advance the international science community,” he said.

Chang’e-5 took off for the Moon on November 23rd, and it’s scheduled to rejoin its return module by Thursday, according to post-landing reports.

China has taken a keen interest in the Moon over the past decade, and while this is its first sample-return mission, it’s actually the nation’s third lunar landing since 2013. Last year, China’s Chang’e-4 became the first robot to land on the far side of the Moon, and also the first to grow plants in a lunar environment. Much like NASA’s Artemis Program, China hopes to establish a research facility and human colony on the Moon by the end of the 2030s.