China’s lunar orbiter successfully completed its unmanned mission to the moon on Saturday, reports Want China Times. Nicknamed “Xiaofei” by Chinese netizens, the unmanned orbiter launched last Friday, and circled the moon once, before coming back to Earth. The mission made China the third country to complete such an expedition, after the United States and the Soviet Union.
The probe landed in Inner Mongolia and was located within minutes of touchdown, however re-entry produced some complications. The high speed of the orbiter created friction between the craft and Earth’s atmosphere, temporarily cutting off contact between the orbiter and ground command. The craft, however, did exactly what it was supposed to. To slow the craft down, engineers designed it to “bounce” off the Earth’s atmosphere to shorten the breaking distance of the orbiter. An error of 0.2 degrees would have caused the mission to fail, but the orbiter landed completely intact.
Xiaofei was a test run for China’s final step in its lunar program. The Chang’e-5, a spacecraft named after the Chinese moon goddess, will most likely launch in 2017 and bring back rocks and dirt from the moon’s surface for scientific examination. These would be the first samples brought back since the Apollo mission in 1969. Xiaofei’s mission tested the transfer from Moon to Earth, and Earth reentry for Chang’e-5–the data gathered by this probe will contribute to the final designs of Chang’e-5.
Chang’e-5 is the third step in China’s ambitious lunar program. Beginning in 2007, China launched two orbiters (Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2) and placed a lunar rover on the moon (Chang’e-3) in 2013. Unbelievably, it’s only a decade since China sent its first man into space, and now the government seems to have endless enthusiasm for space programs. Though the Chinese lunar probe Jade Rabbit went into a final hibernation last winter after experiencing mechanical issues, Chinese officials still aim for the launch of the space station Tiangong-3 in 2022.