By Robert Morgan

China has launched a mission to the dark side of the moon to collect lunar soil samples and return them to Earth, it was announced Friday.

The rocket carrying the Chang’e 6 spacecraft, which includes a lunar lander and lunar orbiter, took off from Wenchang Space Center in China’s southernmost province Hainan just before 5.30pm local time, the Xinhua news agency reported.

The Chang’e 6 mission, named for the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e, aims to collect around two kilogrammes of soil samples from the dark side of the moon and return them to Earth for analysis.

“Chang’e 6 will collect samples from the dark side of the Moon for the first time,” said Ge Ping, deputy director of the Chinese lunar exploration and space engineering centre.

The 53-day-mission is complicated and will require the spacecraft to enter lunar orbit, drop a lander to the moon’s surface for sample collection, then reconnect with a vehicle containing the stone and soil samples launched from the lander before returning to the Earth’s surface in Wenchang.

Should the mission succeed, it will follow in the success of the Chang’e 5 lander, which brought samples back from the near side of the moon in 2020. These are the first new lunar samples to reach Earth since the Apollo and Luna missions of the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chang’e 6 is the first of three robotic missions China plans to launch to the moon this decade after the 2020 Chang’e 5 mission. Chang’e 7 will explore the lunar south pole for water while Chang’e 8 will seek to determine the feasibility of building a moonbase.