China wants to bring home moon rocks in moon vacuum

Apollo just chucked samples in a suitcase. China wants in situ studies

When humans first made the long trip to the Moon, we were more worried about whether something from out there might contaminate us back here. So in the early days there was more attention paid to quarantining returning astronauts than to keeping their returned samples free of contaminants from Earth.

China's space agency is thinking different: plans for the Chang'e-5 probe slated for launch in 2017 now call for it to carry vacuum chambers so that lunar samples come to Earth in conditions that match the Moon's as far as is possible – and that means preserving its vacuum.

The nation's Lanzhou Institute of Physics and the China Academy of Space Technology are therefore, according to Xinhua and chief scientist Li Detain, finding a way to ensure “the accuracy of measuring the finest leak in a vacuum capsule will have [a] direct impact on the research result”.

That desire translates into vacuum flasks that just don't leak. The planned Chang'e-5 flasks will be designed to carry 2kg samples, and as well as dealing with vacuum, they'll be expected to protect the samples agains other environmental changes like heat.

That's a far cry from the Apollo 11 “sample return container”, depicted here on the Smithsonian museum's site, which isn't that much different from a conventional camera bag. ®

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