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China’s Chang’e-6 Lunar Probe Returns with First-Ever Samples from Moon’s Far Side

China’s Chang’e-6 lunar probe has successfully returned to Earth with the first-ever samples from the Moon’s unexplored far side. The probe landed in the Inner Mongolia desert on Tuesday after a nearly two-month mission fraught with risks.

Scientists are eagerly anticipating the Chang’e-6 samples, which could answer key questions about planetary formation. China is the only country to have landed on the far side of the Moon, having first done so in 2019. The far side, which faces away from Earth, is challenging to reach due to its distance and difficult terrain of giant craters and few flat surfaces.

This less-explored side of the Moon is of particular interest to scientists as it may contain traces of ice, which can be harvested for water, oxygen, and hydrogen.

The Chang’e-6 mission is a source of national pride for China, which has been ramping up its lunar missions, drawing attention from its rival, the US. State media showed officials planting the Chinese flag with a flourish just after the Chang’e-6 capsule landed in the Inner Mongolia desert.

China’s President Xi Jinping called to congratulate the mission’s command center, expressing hopes for continued deep space exploration to benefit humanity and advance the nation.

The Chang’e-6 launched from a space center in early May and successfully landed on a crater near the Moon’s south pole a few weeks later. Its mission lasted 53 days. The probe will be sent to Beijing, where the samples will be retrieved, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

This is China’s sixth mission to the Moon and its second to the far side. The probe, named after the moon goddess Chang’e in Chinese mythology, used a drill and a robotic arm to scoop up soil and rocks, took photos of the surface, and planted a Chinese flag.

Catherine Heymans, the astronomer royal for Scotland, expressed excitement over the successful landing, hoping the samples would help test theories about the Moon’s formation 4.5 billion years ago and its potential collision with an early version of Earth.

“It’s incredibly exciting to see this landing successfully,” she told the BBC. “The geological activity on the Moon is very different on the near side and the far side, and it’s been a big puzzle why we see those differences.” She hopes the samples will help researchers understand the Moon’s core composition.

Beijing has invested significantly in its space program over the past decade to catch up with the US and Russia. China aims to send a crewed mission to the Moon by 2030 and eventually build a base on the lunar south pole. The US also plans to return astronauts to the Moon by 2026 with its Artemis 3 mission.

Analysts believe the next space race will not just be about landing on the Moon but also about staking claims and controlling lunar resources.

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