On Monday, China successfully sent the latest in its Chang'e missions on its way to the Moon. Chang'e 5 is the most ambitious to date and, if successful, will make China just the third country to return samples from the lunar surface (after the Soviet Union and the US). While the mission is quite complex with lots of potential for things to go wrong, it's also happening on a short schedule, so we'll have a good idea of how things are going within three weeks.
There and back again
China's Chang'e program, named after a goddess of the Moon, started back in 2007 with the launch of the Chang'e 1 orbiter. Over time, the missions have gotten increasingly complex. Chang'e 3 saw the deployment of a rover on the lunar surface, and Chang'e 4 made history with the first landing on the far side of the Moon. Already, the missions have produced exciting scientific data and lots of photos of previously unexplored areas of the Moon.
Now, China plans to get something back from the Moon that can't be distilled down to a string of ones and zeroes. As with two earlier missions, once Chang'e 5 reaches lunar orbit, it will deploy a lander to the surface. But this time, the lander will be accompanied by a sample return vehicle. After using a drill and scoop to load that up with up to two kilograms of material, the sample return vehicle will lift off from the lunar surface and rendezvous with the vehicle that brought it to the Moon.