China Plans To Retrieve A Lunar Sample Next Year, Eyes A Vast Volcanic Plain On The Moon

Now that the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has chosen the touchdown spots for its historic Chang’e-4 mission — humanity’s first attempt to land a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon — preparations can begin for the next phase in the Chang’e program.

As previously reported by The Inquisitr, the upcoming Chang’e-5 mission aims to collect and bring back to Earth the first lunar sample obtained in the last four decades.

Slated to take place in 2019, China’s sample-return mission will be launching four spacecraft to the moon — an orbiter, a lander, an ascender, and an Earth re-entry module — and already has a designated touchdown area, Space reports.

According to the media outlet, China plans to land its ambitious Chang’e-5 mission in the Rümker region, located in the north of a massive volcanic plain dubbed Oceanus Procellarum (Latin for “Ocean of Storms.”)

Just like the Von Karman Crater on the far side of the moon — the mysterious place where the Chang’e-4 rover-lander duo will be touching down later this year — the Rümker region is yet another fascinating basaltic plain. Also known as maria (singular “mare,”) these large, dark lunar plains are the result of violent volcano eruptions in the moon’s distant past.

Though not much is known about the future destination of the Chang’e-5 mission, a new study led by the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan explores the region’s geologic history, unveiling what the upcoming mission is expected to find in this area of the moon.

Published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, the study presents a series of “prelanding analyses of the geologic context” of the Rümker region, revealing the area’s “scientific potential,” the authors wrote in their paper.

This is essentially the same team that conducted a research on the Von Karman Crater, detailing the main characteristics of the Chang’e-4 landing site, The Inquisitr recently reported.

The new study, focused on the landing site of the Chang’e-5 mission, uncovered that the Rümker region boasts 14 different geological units, the most “distinctive” of them being Mons Rümker — “one of the largest volcanic complexes on the moon,” according to the team.

The researchers used “a wide variety of lunar orbital data,” including imagery, spectral and altimetry readings, to construct a detailed geological map of the landing site, describing all they’ve learned so far about the area’s surface composition, mineralogy, morphology, and topography.

Aside from Mons Rümker, the region’s western and eastern mare units are also particularly interesting. The western units (Im1, Im2, and Im3) date back to 3.8 billion years ago and were forged during the Imbrian Period. Meanwhile, the eastern mare units (Em3 and Em4) “are among the youngest mare basalts on the moon,” being less than 2 billion years old, reveals the study.

“They have never been explored in situ or studied in the laboratory,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “We suggest that samples returned from the eastern mare unit (Em4) could answer many fundamental questions and that this unit should be listed as the top priority landing site for Chang’e‐5 sample return mission.”

The Chang’e-5 mission is unmanned and will take off next year atop a Chinese Long March 5 rocket. The plan envisions sending in the lander and the ascender to swoop down on the surface of the moon and drill through the crust at depths of up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) to grab about 4.4 pounds (two kilograms) of lunar soil and rock samples. Once the samples are collected, the ascender will fly them into lunar orbit, where they will be transferred into the re-entry module.

If successful, Chang’e-5 will be the first mission to return a lunar sample to our planet since the 1976 Luna 24 mission conducted by the former Soviet Union.