January 22, 2021
Jeffrey Kluger for TIME, adapted by TFK editors
The moon’s Ocean of Storms is a vast, dry open space. It was once very busy. In 1967, the United States landed its Surveyor 3 spacecraft there. About two years later, the Apollo 12 crew arrived. The astronauts touched down near the Surveyor and collected more than 75 pounds of lunar rock and soil to bring back to Earth.
Since then, things have been quiet in the Ocean of Storms—until now. On December 1, China’s Chang’e 5 spacecraft landed in the area. With Chang’e 5’s successful return to Earth two weeks later, China became the first country to bring back rock and soil from the moon since 1976.
Geologists are eager to get a look at the lunar materials. Brad Jolliff is the director of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at Washington University, in St. Louis, Missouri. In an email to the Associated Press, he said, “These samples will be a treasure trove!”
Chang’e 5 Mission
The Chang’e 5 mission is the fifth in a lunar winning streak for China. In 2007 and 2010, Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2 orbited the moon. In 2013, Chang’e 3 landed on the moon and deployed a rover. And in 2019, Chang’e 4 did the same, becoming the first spacecraft to successfully land on the moon’s far side.
Chang’e 5 was a much harder mission. It involved a multistage spacecraft that didn’t just land on the moon but lifted off from it, too. Launched on November 23, 2020, the craft entered lunar orbit on November 28. One stage separated from the main body of the craft. It touched down on the moon on December 1. There, it collected
4.4 pounds of lunar rocks and soil. It transferred them to another vehicle. That vehicle lifted off and rendezvoused with the orbiting portion of the spacecraft.
A reentry capsule brought the samples back to Earth. It thumped down in China’s Inner Mongolia region on December 16, completing the successful mission.
Thomas Zurbuchen, of NASA, tweeted his applause for the touchdown. “Congratulations to China on the successful landing of Chang’e 5,” he wrote. “This is no easy task.” Zurbuchen also expressed his hope that the lunar samples “could advance the international science community.”
China intends to embark on more lunar missions, including a crewed landing, perhaps by the early 2030s. The U.S. is planning its own crewed lunar landing by 2024.