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China's Chang'e 5 moon lander is no more after successfully snagging lunar rocks

An artist's illustration of China's Chang'e 5 moon sample-return ascent vehicle lifting off from the lunar surface.
An artist's illustration of China's Chang'e 5 moon sample-return ascent vehicle lifting off from the lunar surface. (Image credit: CNSA/CLEP)

China's Chang'e 5 lander touched down on the moon and collected the first lunar samples in nearly 50 years, but now the lights have gone out.

The Chang'e 5 lander was a crucial part of China's daring sample-return mission. It made a stunning descent and soft landing in the moon's Oceanus Procellarum, or "Ocean of Storms," on Dec. 1 before conducting sampling and other science experiments.

The sun set over the solar-powered spacecraft, which landed near the volcanic peak Mons Rümker in the northwest of the near side of the moon, on Dec. 11. Without the radioisotope heater units carried by the long-lived Chang'e 3 and Chang'e 4 landers, the electronics and systems on Chang'e 5 will succumb to temperatures as low as minus 310 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 190 degrees Celsius).

Related: Amazing panorama shows China's Chang'e 5 landing site on the moon (photos)

However, it appears the spacecraft has already ceased working. Reports indicate that the lander was damaged when it acted as a launch pad for the mission's ascent vehicle to blast off from to reach low lunar orbit on Dec. 3.

The ascent vehicle carried the samples collected by the lander's drill and robotic arm and delivered them to the Chang'e orbiter circling the moon. Cameras on the lander captured the ascent vehicle's takeoff, which started with a spring mechanism before ignition of the ascender's 3,000 Newton engine.

The lander managed to send the data to Earth but has not been carrying out activities since. Amateur radio trackers have also not detected any signals from the lander since the ascent vehicle's takeoff.

The apparent loss of the spacecraft is neither a shock nor an unplanned failure: China's engineers and scientists expecting the lander to incur damage during the dangerous ascent launch. The lander had carried out its objectives and played its full role in the complex 23-day mission.

As well as collecting around 4.4 lb. (2 kilograms) of samples, the lander conducted experiments with a ground-penetrating radar, which will provide information about layers beneath the landing site. An imaging spectrometer analyzed the composition of the surface regolith while a panoramic camera provided brilliant, detailed vistas from Oceanus Procellarum each made by stitching together 120 photos.

Another experiment detected electrically charged dust at the landing site using an instrument called a quartz crystal microbalance. Scientists speculated that the impact of the ascent vehicle onto the lunar surface on Dec. 7 could have carried dust to the vicinity of the Chang'e 5 lander, where the spacecraft's instruments may have detected it, but with the lander's damage, such observations no longer seem possible. 

NASA is particularly curious about the potential challenges caused by lunar dust kicked up by landings ahead of the agency's plan to send astronauts back to the moon by 2024 through the Artemis program.

The Chang'e 5 orbiter began its journey back to Earth on Dec. 12, taking with it a reentry capsule containing the collected lunar samples. Touchdown on Earth is expected around Dec. 17.

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Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.