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China launches first lunar circle and return mission

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China launched the first private spacecraft to the Moon on October 23, October 24 in China. The Long March 3C rocket lifted off on a mission to test equipment and procedures needed for a planned robotic sample return mission planned for 2017. Takeoff time was not immediately released by mission managers.

The vehicle is aimed to complete a flight around our planetary companion, before returning back to Earth. The entire mission will take about eight days to complete. When the spacecraft approaches Earth, it will be traveling around 25,000 miles per hour. Touchdown will take place in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China.

"The test spacecraft separated from its carrier rocket and entered the expected the orbit shortly after the liftoff, according to the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense," ICrossChina, a news service related to the Xinhua News Agency, reported.

Liftoff took place from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province, on China's first mission to circle the Moon and return to Earth.

As the vehicle speeds toward the atmosphere of our home planet, it will "skim" the surface of the air, like a rock skipping across a smooth body of water. This technique is being utilized to slow the craft before re-entry. Mission managers hope this will reduce the amount of heat the spacecraft experiences as it passes through the atmosphere. This procedure will have to be carried out with extreme precision. If the entry angle is too shallow, the vehicle will bounce back into space. If it comes in too steeply, the craft will burn up and disintegrate before ever touching down back on Earth.

The Chang'e-5 mission, planned for launch in three years, is designed to fly to the Moon, land, and collect a sample of the lunar surface for return to Earth. The United States and the Soviet Union are the only nations that have completed this task.

Chang'e-1 was the first mission from China to orbit the Moon, completed in 2007. This success was followed by the Chang'e-2 in 2010. The most ambitious of the series so far is Chang'e-3, which touched down on the surface of our planetary companion in 2013. After landing, the vehicle released a rover, called Jade Rabbit. This was the first robotic probe to land on the lunar surface since the Luna 24 mission, launched by the Soviet space program in 1976.

China is planning to land humans on the Moon, sometime in the 2020's. The United States remains the only nation to accomplish that task so far.

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