The four modules of the Chang'e 5 spacecraft blasted off at just after 4:30 a.m. Tuesday (2030 GMT Monday, 3:30 p.m. EST Monday) atop a massive Long March-5Y rocket from the Wenchang launch center along the coast of the southern island province of Hainan. After the samples are transferred to the returner, the ascender will separate from the orbiter-returner.
It's hoped the samples will help scientists find out more about the Moon's origin and how it was formed.
Other countries are also forging ahead, underscored by the dramatic landing of America's Curiosity Mars rover in 2012 and the return to Earth next month of Japan's explorer Hayabusa2 with samples collected from the asteroid Ryugu. Most of the samples will go to the Chinese Academy of Sciences National Astronomical Observatory of China (NAOC) in Beijing, Nature wrote, and it's unclear whether any arrangement can be reached for USA scientists to gain access. This is expected to happen by early December, according to Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.
Once on the Moon, the lander and ascender will use a special drill to get underground rocks from two metres beneath its surface and a mechanical arm will be used to gather surface dirt. The samples will be sealed into a container in the spacecraft.
Then the ascender will take off, and dock with the orbiter-returner in orbit. The materials will then be moved to the return capsule to be hauled back to Earth.
The probe is due to be on the lunar surface for about two days, while the entire mission is scheduled to take around 23 days.
If the effort is successful, it will be the first time in more than 40 years that any nation has brought back samples from the moon.
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Chinese technicians were making final preparations Monday for a mission to bring back material from the moon's surface in what would be a major advance for the country's space program. "It will be very hard", said Peng Jing, deputy chief designer of the Chang'e-5 probe from the China Academy of Space Technology under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.
"This is a really audacious mission", NASA deputy chief scientist David S. Draper told the Times. "I think future exploration activities on the moon are most likely to be carried out in a human-machine combination".
The United States, which now has plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, landed 12 astronauts there in its Apollo programme over six flights from 1969 to 1972, and brought back 382 kg (842 pounds) of rocks and soil.
The endeavor is the latest in China's ambitious plans to expand its research in space, a rivalrous aspect of the U.S-China relationship.
Speaking to astronauts aboard the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft by video link in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, "the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger".
Chang'e 4 - which made the first soft landing on the moon's relatively unexplored far side nearly two years ago - is now collecting full measurements of radiation exposure from the lunar surface, information vital for any country that plans to send astronauts to the moon. And in July this year, China launched its first unmanned mission to Mars - the Tianwen-1 probe, which will orbit the planet before landing a rover on the surface.
According to the Times, Brown University geological sciences professor James W. Head III said that the findings could have "implications way beyond the moon", as scientists don't now know why the Moon managed to remain hot for at least three billion years after its formation.