China's space probe heads back to Earth with lunar rocks

China's space probe heads back to Earth with lunar rocks

The Straits Times·2020-12-05 10:00

BEIJING A Chinese space probe has blasted off from the surface of the Moon to return to Earth, an ambitious effort to bring back the world's first lunar samples in four decades.China is looking to catch up with the United States and Russia after years of belatedly matching their space milestones.The Chang'e-5 spacecraft, named after the mythical Chinese Moon goddess, left the Moon at 11.10pm on Thursday, said state broadcaster CCTV as mission engineers riveted to their control screens applauded.A module carrying lunar rocks and soil was launched into orbit by a powerful thrust engine, officials said of the mission that landed on the Moon on Tuesday.The module must undergo the delicate operation of linking up with the part of the spacecraft that is to bring the specimens back to Earth, China's official Xinhua news agency reported.The China National Space Administration yesterday released images showing the national flag unfurled from the Chang'e-5 probe on the Moon.In one of the images, a robotic arm used to collect lunar samples can be seen next to the flag.Scientists hope the samples will help them learn about the Moon's origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.If the return journey is successful, China will be only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, following the US and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.This is also the first such attempt since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 mission in 1976.The spacecraft was to collect 2kg of material in an area known as Oceanus Procellarum - or "Ocean of Storms" - a vast lava plain, according to the science journal Nature.Xinhua, which called the Chang'e-5 mission "one of the most complicated and challenging" in Chinese aerospace history, said the probe worked for about 19 hours on the Moon.The samples are expected to be returned to Earth in a capsule programmed to land in northern China's Inner Mongolia region, according to US space agency Nasa.Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China's "space dream", as he calls it, have been put into overdrive.China has poured billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the Moon.AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA


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