Chinese spacecraft lands on far side of moon

Just hours after NASA was forced to scrap the Florida launch of the Boeing Starliner for the second time, a Chinese spacecraft landed on the far side of the moon Sunday to collect soil and rock samples that could provide insights into differences between the less-explored region and the better-known near side.

The landing module touched down at 6:23 a.m. Beijing time in a huge crater known as the South Pole-Aitken Basin, the China National Space Administration said.

The mission is the sixth in the Chang’e moon exploration program, which is named after a Chinese moon goddess. It is the second designed to bring back samples, following the Chang’e 5, which did so from the near side in 2020.

The moon program is part of a growing rivalry with the U.S. — still the leader in space exploration — and others, including Japan and India. China has put its own space station in orbit and regularly sends crews there.

China Space
FILE – This photo provided on Jan. 12, 2019, by the China National Space Administration via Xinhua News Agency shows the lunar lander of the Chang’e-4 probe in a photo taken by the rover Yutu-2 on Jan. 11. China is preparing to launch a lunar probe Friday, May 3, 2024, that would land on the far side of the moon and return with samples that could provide insights into geological and other differences between the less-explored region and the better-known near side. 

China National Space Administration/Xinhua News Agency via AP, File

The emerging global power aims to put a person on the moon before 2030, which would make it the second nation after the United States to do so. America is planning to land astronauts on the moon again — for the first time in more than 50 years — though NASA pushed the target date back to 2026 earlier this year.

U.S. efforts to use private sector rockets to launch spacecraft have been repeatedly delayed. Last-minute computer trouble nixed the planned maiden launch of Boeing’s first astronaut flight Saturday from Cape Canaveral. The Boeing Starliner, carrying two astronauts bound for the International Space Station, was less than four minutes from takeoff when a computer system triggered an automatic hold. NASA initially said it would attempt another launch Sunday, before delaying the potential launch until at least Wednesday. 

Last month, trouble with a pressure relief valve in the Starliner’s Atlas 5 rocket, along a helium leak in the capsule’s propulsion module, scrubbed a May 6 launch attempt. 

The first piloted flight of the Starliner is Boeing’s answer to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, an already operational, less expensive spacecraft that has carried 50 astronauts, cosmonauts and civilians into orbit in 13 flights, 12 of them to the space station, since an initial piloted test flight in May 2020.  

Earlier Saturday, a Japanese billionaire called off his plan to orbit the moon because of uncertainty over the development of a mega rocket by SpaceX. NASA is planning to use the rocket to send its astronauts to the moon.

In China’s current mission, the lander is to use a mechanical arm and a drill to gather up to 4.4 pounds of surface and underground material for about two days.

An ascender atop the lander will then take the samples in a metal vacuum container back to another module that is orbiting the moon. The container will be transferred to a re-entry capsule that is due to return to Earth in the deserts of China’s Inner Mongolia region about June 25.

Missions to the moon’s far side are more difficult because it doesn’t face the Earth, requiring a relay satellite to maintain communications. The terrain is also more rugged, with fewer flat areas to land.

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