China raised the curtain today on the most ambitious act yet of its lunar exploration program. At just about 2 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the Chang’e-5 Test 1 (CE5-T1) spacecraft lifted off aboard a Long March rocket for an unmanned dash to the moon and back that aims to test technology for a sample return mission planned for 2017 and, a decade from now, possibly landing astronauts on the moon.
CE5-T1 marks China’s fourth lunar mission in the Chang’e series, named after a moon goddess in Chinese mythology. Chang’e-1, launched in 2007, spent 16 months in orbit snapping the nation’s first images of the lunar surface. Previous Chang’e probes were left in space. Guiding CE5-T1 back to Earth poses a new challenge; entering the atmosphere at a speed of 11.2 km/s is nearly 50% faster than the return speed of China’s Shenzhou spacecraft, which has carried orbiting astronauts safely back to Earth’s surface.
“Earthbound experiments can’t effectively simulate the complexity of the atmospheric environment,” Hao Xifan, deputy chief designer of the CE5-T1 and Chang’e-5 missions, told China’s S&T Daily newspaper shortly before the launch. He says CE5-T1 may be the sole spacecraft launched for engineering testing during China’s unmanned lunar exploration program.