Chang'e 5 test vehicle "Xiaofei" safely on the ground
The Chang'e 5 test vehicle launched October 23, 2014 and successfully returned a test sample return capsule eight days later, on October 31.
This is an important step for China's methodical lunar exploration program. The program was laid out in three phases. The first phase, orbital reconnaissance of the Moon, was completed successfully by the Chang'e 1 and 2 orbiters in 2007 and 2010, respectively. The Chang'e 3 lander and rover represent the second phase, demonstrating a successful soft landing on the lunar surface in 2013. The Chang'e 3 backup spacecraft may be launched to another lunar landing as Chang'e 4 next year to a different location, possibly even the lunar south pole.
But the next step will be a doozy. Chang'e 5, to be launched in 2017, will be a stack of four spacecraft with a complicated mission. It must launch, traverse the distance to the Moon, enter lunar orbit, separate into a service module and lander, land, collect samples, place them into a capsule, launch it into lunar orbit, rendezvous with an orbiting service module, transfer back to Earth, and protect the precious cargo as it enters Earth's atmosphere and lands -- in the right spot! -- on the surface.
The Chang'e 5 test vehicle, which (according to Xinhua) has been nicknamed "Xiaofei" ("little flyer") on Chinese social media, was designed to test just a couple of these steps: transfer from Moon to Earth and Earth reentry. It did not have the full four-component stack, only an orbiter based on the Chang'e 1 and 2 design and a sample return capsule that appears to most observers to be a scaled-down version of the Shenzhou capsule.
It launched on October 23 at 18:00 UTC onto a free-return trajectory, looping once around the lunar farside and returning to Earth. Its reentry trajectory skipped in and out of the atmosphere once to bleed off energy without overheating the spacecraft before entering a second time, deploying parachutes, and landing today at 22:42 UTC.
The successful landing of the Chang'e 5 test vehicle is a piece of bright news in a sad week for space enthusiasts, coming on the heels of the Antares launch accident and the SpaceShipTwo tragedy.
The Chang'e 5 test vehicle success makes the Chang'e 5 mission slightly less scary. I would assume that the spacecraft to be launched as Chang'e 4 will test some of the sample handling technology they will need to make Chang'e 5 a success, but that's just my own speculation.
I congratulate China on today's success, and hope that the future holds similar success for the Chang'e 5 mission itself. The samples that Chang'e 5 may return would be the first since the Apollo and Luna samples revolutionized our understanding of the origins of Earth and the Moon. Hopefully some of the Chang'e 5 samples will be shared with the rest of the world, so we can add to the scientific edifice that continues to be built with ongoing examination of Apollo and Luna material.