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China to send probe to orbit the moon to test lunar sample return technology

Earth's moon
NASA (public domain)

Xinhua reported on Sunday that China intends to launch a spacecraft that would orbit the moon and then return to Earth. The idea is to test a crucial technology for a sample return mission from the lunar surface, designated as Chang’e 5, which will be undertaken later this decade. The launch of the lunar orbiter is scheduled to take place later this year.

China has conducted an extensive unpiloted exploration of the moon, sending several probes to Earth’s nearest neighbor. The Chang’e 1 and the Chang’e 2 orbited the moon, mapping and otherwise remote sensing its surface. The Chang’e 3 landed a rover, called Yutu, on the lunar surface in late 2013. The Yutu failed in January, likely due to a mechanical defect, but is said to still be returning data.

Chang’e 4 is thought to be a repeat mission of Chang’e 3, which will no doubt incorporate lessons learned from the failure of the Yutu. Change’e 5 would land on the moon, collect geological samples, and return them to Earth. Beyond that is a matter of debate.

Speculation abounds in the media that China’s ultimate goal for the moon is mining deposits of an isotope called Helium 3. Helium 3 does not exist in nature on Earth, but has been deposited in lunar soil by billions of years of solar wind. It is thought to be the key for clean, limitless fusion energy.

The Fusion Technology Institute in Madison, Wisconsin has been examining the use of helium 3 for decades. The problem is that there is only a tiny amount of the substance available on Earth, mainly as a byproduct of nuclear experiments. This would seem to cry out for a return to the lunar surface to capture significant amounts to helium 3 to further research and development. While a number of private companies, such as Moon Express, are interested in mining the moon, an official NASA led return to the moon was ruled out by President Obama’s directive.