A Chinese lunar capsule returned to Earth with the first fresh samples of rock and debris from the moon in more than 40 years.
The capsule of the Chang’e 5 probe landed in the Siziwang district of the Inner Mongolia region, state media reported shortly after 2 a.m. local time Thursday (1 p.m. ET).
The capsule separated from its orbiter module and performed a bounce off the Earth’s atmosphere to reduce its speed before passing through and floating to the ground on parachutes.
Two of the Chang’e 5’s four modules set down on the moon on Dec. 1 and collected about two kilograms of samples by scooping them from the surface and by drilling two metres into the moon’s crust.
The samples were deposited in a sealed container that was carried back to the return module by an ascent vehicle.
The successful mission was the latest breakthrough for China’s increasingly ambitious space program that includes a robotic mission to Mars and plans for a permanent orbiting space station.
Recovery crews had prepared helicopters and off-road vehicles to home in on signals emitted by the lunar spacecraft to locate it in the darkness shrouding the vast snow-covered region in China’s far north, long used as a landing site for China’s Shenzhou crewed spaceships.
The spacecraft’s return marked the first time scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rocks since the former Soviet Union’s Luna 24 robot probe in 1976.
Those rocks and debris are thought to be billions of years younger than those obtained by the U.S. and former Soviet Union, offering new insights into the history of the moon and other bodies in the solar system.
They come from a part of the moon known as the Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms, near a site called the Mons Rumker that was believed to have been volcanic in ancient times.
As with the 382 kilograms of lunar samples brought back by U.S. astronauts from 1969 to 1972, they will be analyzed for age and composition and likely shared with other countries.
Chang’e 5 blasted off from a launch base in China’s southern island province of Hainan on Nov. 23.
China’s lunar, Mars ambitions
Flying a Chinese flag, the moon lander stopped functioning soon after it was used as a launching pad for the ascender, which was ejected from the orbiter after transferring the samples and came to rest on the moon’s surface.
It marked China’s third successful lunar landing but the only one to lift off again from the moon.
The spacecraft’s predecessor, Chang’e 4, was the first probe to land on the moon’s little-explored far side and continues to send back data on conditions that could affect a future extended stay by humans on the moon.
The moon has been a particular focus of the Chinese space program, which has said it plans to land humans there and possibly construct a permanent base. No timeline or other details have been announced.
China also has joined the effort to explore Mars. In July, it launched the Tianwen 1 probe, which carried a lander and a robot rover to search for water.
China’s space program has proceeded more cautiously than the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s, which was marked by fatalities and launch failures.
In 2003, China became the third country to send an astronaut into orbit on its own after the Soviet Union and the United States.
The latest flight included collaboration with the European Space Agency, which helped monitor the mission.
Amid concerns over the Chinese space program’s secrecy and close military connections, the U.S. forbids co-operation between NASA and the China National Space Administration unless Congress gives its approval.
That has prevented China from taking part in the International Space Station, something it has sought to compensate for with the launching of an experimental space station and plans to complete a permanent orbiting outpost within the next two years.