China unfurls flag on dark side of the Moon as probe heads back to Earth

China’s Chang’e-6 probe has lifted off from the far side of the Moon, starting its journey back towards Earth, state media Xinhua announced on Tuesday.

The probe departed the Moon at 7.38am local time (12.38am BST) and completed its two-day sample collection on Monday night.

Chang’e-6 displayed China’s national flag for the first time on the far side of the Moon after picking up the samples, Beijing Daily said.

The mission to the dark side of the Moon is a world first, and the latest leap for Beijing’s space programme, which aims to send a crewed mission to the surface by 2030.

The Chinese flag flies for the first time on the far side of the Moon
The Chinese flag flies for the first time on the far side of the Moon - Jin Liwang

China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) described the achievement as “an unprecedented feat in human lunar exploration history”.

“The mission has withstood the test of high temperature on the far side of the Moon,” the CNSA added.

The module touched down on Sunday in the Moon’s immense South Pole-Aitken Basin, one of the largest known impact craters in the solar system.

The probe’s technically complex 53-day mission began on May 3.

The lander-ascender combination of Chang'e-6 probe waits to lift off from the lunar surface
The lander-ascender combination of Chang'e-6 probe waits to lift off from the lunar surface - Jin Liwang
Carrying samples from the far side of the Moon, the ascender lifts off towards Earth
Carrying samples from the far side of the Moon, the ascender lifts off towards Earth - Xinhua / Alamy Live News

The Chang’e-6 features two methods of sample collection: a drill to collect material under the surface and a robotic arm to grab specimens above the surface.

Scientists say the Moon’s dark side – so-called because it is invisible from Earth – holds great promise for research because its craters are less covered by ancient lava flows than the near side.

Material collected from the far side may better shed light on how the Moon formed in the first place.

The panoramic camera attached to the Chang'e-6 sends back a general view of the surface of the Moon
The panoramic camera attached to the Chang'e-6 sends back a general view of the surface of the Moon - China National Space Administration/AFP via Getty Images
The camera also took some shots of some of the Moon's craters
The camera also took some shots of some of the Moon's craters - China National Space Administration/AFP via Getty Images

Beijing has dedicated huge resources to its space programme over the past decade, to close the gap with the two traditional space powers, the US and Russia.

It has notched several notable achievements. Beijing has landed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon, and China is only the third country to independently put humans in orbit.