A Chinese lunar capsule returned to Earth on Thursday with the first fresh rock samples from the moon in more than 40 years, offering the possibility of new insights into the history of the solar system and marking a new landmark for China’s rapidly advancing space program.
The capsule of the Chang’e 5 probe landed just before 2 a.m. (1800 GMT Wednesday) in the Siziwang district of the Inner Mongolia region, the China National Space Administration reported.
The capsule had earlier separated from its orbiter module and performed a bounce off Earth’s atmosphere to reduce its speed before passing through and floating to the ground on parachutes. Following recovery, the capsule and its cargo of samples were flown to the space program’s campus in Beijing to begin the process of disassembly and analysis, the space administration said.
The mission achieved new firsts for the lunar exploration program in collecting samples, launching a vehicle from the moon’s surface and docking it with the capsule to return the samples to Earth, the administration said.
Two of the Chang’e 5’s four modules set down on the moon on Dec. 1 and collected about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of samples by scooping them from the surface and drilling 2 meters (about 6 feet) 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.
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.