Two years after putting its first rover on the moon, China says it will launch a mission to bring lunar samples back to Earth late this year. As it plans that mission, China's space agency is also preparing a separate trip to the moon's far side, possibly in 2018.
In late 2013, China became the third country to land a rover on the moon's surface, joining the U.S. and Russia in that elite club. Named the Jade Rabbit, China's rover ran into a slew of early technical problems, as the Two-Way reported. But it overcame many of those issues and continued operations until August of 2016.
The mission to return lunar samples to Earth will be even more complex.
"With a weight of 8.2 tons, the lunar probe is comprised of four parts: an orbiter, a returner, an ascender and a lander," says China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. consultant Ye Peijian, according to official broadcaster CCTV.
After a heavy-lift rocket sends it to the moon, the Chang'e-5 lunar probe (named for the Chinese lunar goddess) will deploy its lander to the moon's surface, where it will deposit samples in the ascender craft; the ascender will then take off and dock with the orbiter, where the samples will be transferred to the returning craft.
In addition to bringing China its first samples from the moon, the mission will represent the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.'s first lunar take-off and unmanned docking in the moon's orbit, CCTV reports.
We're poised to witness a flurry of moon shots: Several other entities are also planning lunar missions in 2017, including at least five teams who are competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. And in 2018, NASA plans to send several missions to the moon's orbit, while India hopes to land a rover on the lunar surface in the same year.
China is also planning two other ambitious missions. In late December, its space agency announced that it may land a probe on the moon's far side by late 2018 — and that it plans to launch a Mars probe by 2020.