Chinese lunar probe on way back to Earth

A handout photo shows the Chang'e-5 probe gathering samples on the moon on Dec 3, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING (AFP) - A Chinese space probe blasted off from the surface of the Moon on Thursday (Dec 3) to return to Earth, an ambitious effort to bring back the world's first lunar samples in four decades.

Beijing is looking to catch up with the US 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 (11.10pm Singapore time), said state broadcaster CCTV as mission engineers who were riveted to 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 Tuesday on the Moon.

The module then must undergo the delicate operation of linking up with the part of the spacecraft that is to bring the specimens back to Earth, Xinhua reported.

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 United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.

This is the first such attempt since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 mission in 1976.

The spacecraft was due 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 Chang'e-5 "one of the most complicated and challenging missions in Chinese aerospace history", reported the probe worked for about 19 hours on the Moon.

The samples were 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.

China launched its first satellite in 1970, while human spaceflight took decades longer - with Yang Liwei becoming China's first "taikonaut" in 2003.

A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019 in a global first that boosted Beijing's aspirations to become a space superpower.

The latest probe is among a slew of ambitious targets, which include creating a powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those Nasa and private rocket firm SpaceX can handle, a lunar base, and a permanently crewed space station.

China's taikonauts and scientists have also talked up crewed missions to Mars.

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