China claims success as lunar probe unfurls flag, collects rock samples

Beijing — China said its lunar spacecraft unfurled the country’s red and gold flag for the first time on the far side of the moon before part of the vehicle blasted off early Tuesday with rock and soil samples to bring back to Earth. The mission was hailed as a success in China, which has made significant advances in a space program that aims to put a person on the moon before the end of this decade.

The Chang’e-6 probe was launched last month and its lander touched down on the far side of the moon Sunday. Its ascender lifted off Tuesday morning at 7:38 a.m. Beijing time, with its engine burning for about six minutes as it entered a preset orbit around the moon, the China National Space Administration said.

The agency said the spacecraft withstood a high temperature test on the lunar surface, and acquired the samples using both drilling and surface collection before stowing them in a container inside the ascender of the probe as planned.

The container will be transferred to a reentry capsule that is due to return to Earth in the deserts of China’s Inner Mongolia region about June 25.

An image taken from a video animation aired on June 4, 2024 by China’s state television network CCTV shows an artist’s depiction of the Chang’e 6 lunar probe’s ascender module, carrying rock and soil samples from the far side of the moon, leaving the lunar surface to head back to Earth.


The small flag, which the agency said was made of special composite materials, emerged on a retractable arm deployed from the side of the lunar lander and was not placed onto the lunar soil, according to an animation of the mission released by the agency.

“Mission accomplished!” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying wrote on X. “An unprecedented feat in human lunar exploration history!”

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.

Xinhua said the probe’s landing site was the South Pole-Aitken Basin, an impact crater created more than 4 billion years ago that is 8 miles deep and has a diameter of 1,500 miles.

It is the oldest and largest of such craters on the moon, so may provide the earliest information about it, Xinhua said, adding that the huge impact may have ejected materials from deep below the surface.

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.

Screen shows news footage of a Chinese national flag carried by Chang'e-6 probe's lander on the moon, in Beijing
A large screen shows news video of a Chinese national flag carried by the Chang’e-6 lunar probe’s lander on the far side of the moon, in Beijing, China, June 4, 2024.

Tingshu Wang/REUTERS

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 currently has a three-member crew on its own space station orbiting the Earth, and it aims to put astronauts on the moon by 2030. Three more Chinese lunar probe missions are planned over the next four years.  

If China manages to put a person on the moon it 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.

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