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A Chinese space probe left the lunar surface on Thursday to return to Earth, in an ambitious attempt to bring back the world’s first moon samples in four decades.
China has poured billions into its military-run space program, hoping to have a manned space station by 2022 and eventually send humans to the moon.
State broadcaster CCTV said the Chang’e-5 spacecraft, named after the legendary Chinese moon goddess, left the moon at 11:10 p.m. (1510 GMT), as the mission’s engineers installed to control the screens applauded.
The Chinese National Space Administration said that a vehicle carrying moon rocks and soil was in orbit after activating a powerful propulsion engine, for the mission that was launched from Hainan Province, southern China.
Scientists hope the samples will help them learn about the origins, formation, and volcanic activity of the moon on its surface.
If the return flight is successful, China would be only the third country to have recovered samples from the moon, after the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.
This is the first attempt of its kind since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.
The spacecraft was due to collect two kilograms (4.5 pounds) of material in a previously unexplored area known as Oceanus Procellarum – or “Ocean of Storms” – which is a vast lava plain, according to the scientific journal Nature.
The samples will be returned to Earth in a capsule programmed to land in Inner Mongolia, northern China, according to NASA.
Under President Xi Jinping, China’s “space dream” plans, as he calls it, were overly elaborated.
Beijing is finally looking to catch up with the United States and Russia after years of belatedly matching their satellite contours.
China launched its first satellite in 1970, while human spaceflight took decades longer – Yang Liwei became the first Chinese “astronaut” in 2003.
A Chinese lunar craft landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019 in a global precedent that boosted Beijing’s aspirations to become a superpower in space.
The probe is the latest among a plethora of ambitious targets, which include creating a powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those that NASA and the private rocket company SpaceX can handle, a lunar base and a permanently manned space station.
Chinese astronauts and scientists have also spoken of manned missions to Mars.
© 2020 Agence France-Presse