First moon samples for more than 40 years brought back to Earth

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A Chinese lunar spacecraft capsule has returned to Earth with the first fresh samples of rock and debris from the moon in more than 40 years.

The newly-collected rocks are thought to be billions of years younger than those obtained earlier by the US and former Soviet Union, offering new insights into the history of the moon and other bodies in the solar system.

They come from a part of the moon known as the Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms, near a site called the Mons Rumker that was believed to have been volcanic in ancient times.

As with the 382kg of lunar samples brought back by US astronauts from 1969 to 1972, they will be analysed for age and composition and are expected to be shared with other countries.

The age of the samples will help fill in a gap in knowledge about the history of the moon between roughly one billion and three billion years ago.

The capsule of the Chang'e 5 probe landed in the Siziwang district of the Inner Mongolia region on Wednesday.

It had earlier separated from its orbiter module and performed a bounce off the Earth's atmosphere to reduce its speed before passing through and floating down on parachutes.

Two of the Chang'e 5's four modules set down on the moon on 1 December and collected about 2kg of samples by scooping them from the surface, and by drilling two metres into the moon's crust.

The samples were deposited in a sealed container that was carried back to the return module by an ascent vehicle.

The successful mission was the latest breakthrough for China's increasingly ambitious space programme, that includes a robotic mission to Mars and plans for a permanent orbiting space station.

Recovery crews had prepared helicopters and off-road vehicles to home-in on signals emitted by the lunar spacecraft and locate it in the darkness shrouding the vast snow-covered region in China's far north, long used as a landing site for China's Shenzhou crewed spaceships.

The spacecraft's return marked the first time scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rocks since the former Soviet Union's Luna 24 robot probe in 1976.