A Chinese space probe has left the surface of the moon to return to Earth, bringing with it the first samples of lunar rock to be collected in four decades.
China has poured billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the moon.
The Chang’e-5 spacecraft, named after the mythical Chinese moon goddess, left the surface at 11.10pm Beijing time (1510 GMT), said the state broadcaster CCTV, as mission engineers watching control screens applauded at length.
A module carrying lunar rocks and soil was in orbit after activating a powerful thrust engine, the China National Space Administration said of the mission, which was launched from China’s southern Hainan province.
Scientists hope the samples will help them learn about the moon’s origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.
If the return journey is successful, China will be only the third country to have retrieved samples from the moon, following the US and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s. This is the first such attempt since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.
The spacecraft was due to collect 2kg (4.5lbs) of material in a previously unexplored area known as Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms), a vast lava plain, according to the science journal Nature.
The samples will be returned to Earth in a capsule programmed to land in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region, according to Nasa.
Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream”, as he calls it, have been put into overdrive. Beijing is looking to finally catch up with the US and Russia after years of belatedly matching their space milestones.
China launched its first satellite in 1970. Human spaceflight took decades longer, with Yang Liwei becoming the first “taikonaut” in 2003.
A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019 in a global first that boosted Beijing’s aspirations to become a space superpower.
The latest mission was among a slew of ambitious targets, which include creating a powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those Nasa and the private firm SpaceX can handle, a lunar base, and a permanently crewed space station.
China’s taikonauts and scientists have also talked up crewed missions to Mars.