Two Chinese robotic spaceships have docked in lunar orbit for the first time to send samples from the moon to earth.
The lunar ascent module for China's Chang & # 39; e-5 mission was caught by the metal claws of the mission's orbiter on December 6 (2142 UTC, December 5) at 5:42 a.m. Beijing time, the Chinese space agency reported.
In the following half an hour, a canister of lunar material was safely transferred to the earth return capsule attached to the orbiter. In the coming days, the ascent module will be ejected and the orbiter will fire its engines to carry the return pod back to Earth.
If everything goes according to plan, the orbiter will release the return capsule for the descent into Inner Mongolia sometime around December 16, the exact time depending on the mission team's analysis of the required trajectory. This would be the first return of fresh material from the moon since the Soviet spacecraft Luna 24 accomplished the feat in 1976.
The rendezvous marked the latest milestone in a historic mission that began less than two weeks ago with the launch of Chang & # 39; e-5. It took just a few days for the 8.2-ton vehicle to reach lunar orbit and a few more days to proceed with the descent of Chang & # 39; e-5's lander and ascent module.
After a successful touchdown in a region known as Oceanus Procellarum, the lander used a drill and a shovel-equipped robotic arm to dig up enough lunar regolites to fill a sample container in the ascent module. On December 3, the ascent module fired and headed for the orbital rendezvous.
Andrew Jones, a Finland-based journalist who has followed every step of Chang & # 39; e-5's mission, said in a tweet that the successful rendezvous and docking was a "massive step to bring home fresh lunar samples" .
The mission is important not only to their technical achievements, but also to their scientific promise. The basalt rocks of the lunar landing site are believed to have formed 1.2 billion years ago, which is relatively new geologically. The Chang & # 39; e-5 samples could be the youngest material ever brought back from the moon – shedding new light on the geological evolution of the Earth-Moon system.
It's been a big week for alien sample returns: in addition to the Chang & # 39; e-5 exploits, Japan's Hayabusa 2 probe successfully returned samples from an asteroid at the end of a six-year round trip.
Main image: Chang & # 39; e-5's orbiter is approaching the lunar ascent module for docking. Photo credit: CNSA / CLEP