Luna 16: First Robotic Lunar Sample Return Mission

Fifty years ago this day, the Soviet Union’s Luna 16 robotic probe made a night landing in the Sea of Fertility. It drilled nearly 14 inches into the lunar regolith, collected 3.6 ounces of soil, and delivered its precious cargo to Earth four days later.

The astronauts on Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 between 1969 and 1972 brought back a total of 840 lbs of moon rocks and soil. Each successive Apollo mission brought back a larger amount of lunar material.

The Soviets brought back a total of 0.7 lbs of lunar soil through their robotic sample return missions Luna 16 (1970), Luna 20 (1972), and Luna 24 (1976).

So, excluding lunar meteorites that have befallen the Earth, a total of 840.7 lbs of lunar material has been brought to research laboratories here on Earth.

After a hiatus of over 44 years, China plans to launch two lunar sample return missions, Chang’e 5 in November 2020 and Chang’e 6 in 2023 or 2024. Chang’e 5 is expected to return at least 4.4 lbs of lunar material from nearly 7 ft. below the surface at its landing site in the Mons Rümker region of Oceanus Procellarum.

Chang’e is the Chinese goddess of the Moon, and is pronounced chong-EE.