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China Sends Robotic Mission To The Moon To Collect Rocks

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now we turn to the newest campaign in space. Early Tuesday morning in Beijing, China launched a rocket to the moon. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more on the mission.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The probe is known as Chang'e 5.

QUANZHI YE: Chang'e is the Chinese goddess for the moon.

BRUMFIEL: Ye Quanzhi is an astronomer at the University of Maryland who tracks China's space program. He says this mission is special because it will both land on the moon and pick up some lunar soil to carry back to Earth.

YE: It will be the first time that we get something back from the moon in 40 years.

BRUMFIEL: Ye says this mission is part of a long-term Chinese plan to explore the moon, first with satellites, then landers and rovers and now a sample return. For China, the space program is a way to signal the country's superpower status. Moreover...

YE: By promoting space exploration, you are creating new avenues to collaborate with other countries.

BRUMFIEL: Scientists around the world are excited about this mission. Brett Denevi is a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

BRETT DENEVI: The Chang'e 5 mission is great because they're targeting a surface that we think is one of the younger parts of the moon.

BRUMFIEL: Moon rocks are actually an important way scientists like Denevi figure out how old things are. Here's how it works - older parts of the moon have more craters, so counting craters gives a rough estimate of the age. But that estimate gets a whole lot better when scientists have rocks from those regions. They can precisely date the samples in labs here on Earth. Most rock samples from earlier moon missions are from old parts of the lunar surface. This landing spot is much newer.

DENEVI: This particular area, we think, was a sea of lava about a billion years ago.

BRUMFIEL: That should help vastly improve the crater counting method, which can also be used to look at planets like Mars and Mercury.

DENEVI: So we're really getting this kind of solar system-wide picture from it.

BRUMFIEL: Ye says Chang'e 5 will be a big step for China in developing technologies to get to the moon and back, technologies it may eventually use to send astronauts.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU'S "STAR TREKKING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.