China’s Chang’e 5 spacecraft lands on the moon to return rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s

A Chinese spacecraft landed on the moon to return moon rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s, the government announced.

The China National Space Administration said Chang’e 5 “landed successfully” at the designated location shortly after 11 pm (8:30 pm Tuesday IST) on Tuesday after a powered descent from orbit. It published images of the bare landing scene, including where the lander’s shadow can be seen.

The lander was launched from the tropical southern island of Hainan on November 24. It is the latest venture in a Chinese space program that in 2003 sent its first astronaut into orbit, has a spacecraft bound for Mars, and eventually plans to land a human on the moon.

According to plans, the lander will have to drill into the lunar surface for about two days and collect 2 kilos of rocks and debris. The sample is put into orbit and transferred to a return capsule for its journey to Earth, where it settles on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia around the middle of the month.

If successful, it will be the first time scientists have obtained new samples of lunar rocks since a Soviet probe in the 1970s. Those samples are expected to be made available to scientists from other countries, although it is unclear how much access NASA will have, given the US government’s strict restrictions on space cooperation with China.

From the rocks and debris, scientists hope to learn more about the moon, including its exact age, as well as more knowledge about other bodies in our solar system. Collecting samples, including from asteroids, is an increasing focus of many space programs, and China’s mastery of the technology is once again making it one of the leading nations to operate in space.

US astronauts on NASA’s Apollo space program brought back 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of lunar samples from 1969 to 1972, some of which are still under analysis and experimentation.

The Chang’e 5 flight is China’s third successful moon landing. Its predecessor, Chang’e 4, was the first probe to land on the little-explored far side of the moon. Chinese officials of the space program have said they envision future manned missions, along with robotic missions, which may include building some sort of permanent space base for conducting research. No timeline or other details have been disclosed.

The latest flight includes collaboration with the European Space Agency, which helps track the mission.

China’s space program has been more cautious than the US-Soviet space race of the 1960s, which was characterized by fatalities and failed launches.

In 2003, China became the third country after the Soviet Union and the United States to independently send an astronaut into orbit. It also launched a manned space station.

China, along with neighboring countries Japan and India, has also joined the growing race to explore Mars. The Tianwen 1 probe launched in July is on its way to the red planet with a lander and rover to search for water.

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