China's lunar mission brings first moon rocks to Earth since 1970s

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China's unmanned Chang'e 5 spacecraft has returned safely to earth carrying 2 kilogrammes of rocks and soil from the moon's surface, making China just the third country after the USA and the Soviet Union to achieve the feat.

In images broadcast on state television, the blackened capsule landed on snow-covered grasslands in darkness in the country's remote north.

China's latest lunar mission comes almost two years after it landed a lunar rover on the far side of the moon.

The official Xinhua news agency described the Chang'e-5 mission as one of the most challenging and complicated in China's aerospace history.

Chang'e-5, named after a mythical Chinese moon goddess, landed on the moon on 1 December. For two days, it collected material in a volcanic area called Mons Ruemker in the Oceanus Procellarum -- or "Ocean of Storms" -- which was previously unexplored, China's space agency said.

The samples came from a region with less craters, which scientists hope will give valuable information on the moon's origins.

“This could mean that there might have been an event such as a magmatic eruption that covered the older craters and created a younger, fresh surface,” Frederic Moynier of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, an expert on lunar and Martian rock samples, told RFI.

'International' celebration

Thomas Zurbuchen, a top official at NASA's science mission directorate, congratulated China on the safe return of the capsule. “The international science community celebrates your successful Chang'e 5 mission,” he tweeted.

The probe's departure was the first time China had achieved take-off from an extra-terrestrial body. The module then went through the delicate operation of linking up in lunar orbit with the part of the spacecraft that brought the samples back to Earth.

The probe comprised separate craft to get to the moon, land on it and collect the samples, get back up and then return the rocks and soil to Earth.

The capsule will be airlifted to Beijing for opening, and the moon samples will be delivered to a research team for analysis and study.

China had already said it would be willing to share the samples from the moon, and the space agency's director said after the capsule landed that Beijing would "cooperate extensively" with global scientists.

Chinese officials said some of the moon material would be displayed in the country's National Museum and others would be sent to Mao Zedong's hometown in central China, as a tribute to the late Chinese Communist Party leader.

(with AFP)