Key takeaways

  • China’s Chang’e 6 spacecraft returned with the first samples from the moon’s far side.
  • The samples could provide new insights into the moon’s formation and history.
  • Chang’e 6 used a relay satellite for communication, highlighting the complexity of far-side exploration.
  • Studying these samples alongside Apollo-era rocks may confirm or challenge existing moon formation theories.
  • China plans to share some samples with U.S. researchers, fostering scientific cooperation.

A Chinese spacecraft has returned to Earth with the first samples ever obtained from the moon’s far side. On Tuesday, Chinese state media transmitted photos of the capsule containing the samples as it floated down under parachute across the vast steppe of Inner Mongolia.

Scientists believe the pebbles within the small space capsule might shed fresh light on how our nearest neighbor evolved.

Chang’e 6, which arrived on the far side, would not be the first space mission to return moon rocks that altered textbooks. Neil Armstrong’s samples from the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 challenged the then-prevailing view regarding how the moon formed.

Prior to Apollo, experts believed it originated when a group of asteroids near Earth gradually coalesced. However, the minerals in the moon rocks carried back by the astronauts revealed a considerably more violent genesis narrative, according to Richard Carlson, director emeritus of the Earth and Planets Laboratory at Carnegie Science in Washington.

“The wisdom now is that something the size of Mars, for example, hit the Earth and spalled off enough material to put it into orbit and form the moon,” according to him.

In other words, the impact ripped a large ball of molten lava off the Earth, which cooled into the orb we see in the sky.

The hypothesis is largely accepted today, however the evidence is fairly restricted. That’s because the Apollo missions (together with the Soviet Union’s robotic Luna missions) all landed on the moon’s near side, which is constantly facing Earth.

“Think about the geology of the Earth: If you only landed in North America, you’d be missing a big part of the story, right?” says Carlson.

China’s latest robotic probe, Chang’e 6, has arrived on the moon’s far side. That’s a far more difficult assignment since the far side faces away from our planet and there’s no direct communication. Instead, Chang’e 6 used a spacecraft circling the moon to transmit its signal.

Earlier this month, it utilized a drill and scoop to gather samples from a lava flow in the South Pole-Aitken basin. Carlson believes that these new materials will validate the Apollo-era genesis myth, which holds that the entire moon was formed fast approximately 4.5 billion years ago.

According to the author, if the Chang’e 6 sample matches the age of the Apollo samples, it might indicate a worldwide catastrophe. Otherwise, the textbooks will need to be revised.

According to Jim Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University, the far side of the moon also holds many secrets. He describes the far side as extensively cratered and mostly barren of lava-flooded areas known as “maria”.

“It’s pretty clear that the far side and the near side have many, many differences,” Head explains. “This is a major problem. A planet’s genesis cannot be understood with only one hemisphere.”

China and the United States are currently competing with each other, including over the moon. Both governments say they hope to return people to the lunar surface before the end of the decade.

However, China has volunteered to share at least some of its fresh moon samples with American researchers, and NASA is enabling U.S. scientists to make bids. Carlson is all for it.

“Somehow I suspect that international politics doesn’t depend on our models for the origin of the moon,” he says.

NPR’s Huo Jingnan contributed to this report.

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