Dec 16, 2020 - Science

China's Moon rock samples are back on Earth after historic mission

The arm of a spacecraft extends into the lunar dirt to gather a sample of Moon rocks for China
The Chang'e-5 spacecraft gathering a sample on the Moon. Photo: China National Space Administration/AFP via Getty Images

A capsule containing Moon rocks collected from the lunar surface by China's Chang'e-5 mission has been found in Inner Mongolia.

Why it matters: China is just the third nation to return lunar samples to Earth, after the U.S. and former Soviet Union.

Details: The rock samples were taken from Oceanus Procellarum, an area thought to be hundreds of millions of years younger than the Apollo sites.

  • By analyzing these lunar rocks back on Earth, scientists will be able to get a more clear picture of the evolution of the Moon.
  • The Chang'e-5 mission comes on the heels of other robotic Chinese missions to the Moon, including the 2019 Chang'e-4 mission, which became the first to operate on the far side of the Moon.

The big picture: These kinds of sample return missions are beneficial for scientists because the kind of analysis that can be done on Earth is far superior to the science that can be performed by rovers or orbital missions taking photos — labs on the planet are just more powerful.

  • Japan just returned a sample of an asteroid to Earth for analysis, and NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission sampled a different asteroid, with plans to return its sample in 2023.
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