Chinese craft returns to Earth with Moon rocks

BEIJING (AFP) – An unmanned Chinese spacecraft carrying rocks and soil from the Moon returned safely to Earth early yesterday, completing another chapter in China’s effort to become a space superpower.

The mission was the first in four decades to collect lunar samples, emulating the feats of the United States and the Soviet Union from the 1960s and 1970s – and going a few steps further. Scientists hope the samples will give insights into the Moon’s origins and volcanic activity, though a more immediate focus was on how the mission showcased China’s technological advances.

“China has been preparing for this for a long time,” Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher, told AFP.

“This was very important to them – and still risky, as the automatic rendezvous, docking and sample transfer in lunar orbit had never been done before, by anyone. It’s a sign of the maturity of the Chinese space effort that it went off so flawlessly.”

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

A recovery crew look at the capsule of the Chang’e 5 probe after its landed at the main landing site in Siziwang district, north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. PHOTO: AP

A Chinese flag was quickly placed next to the capsule, reflecting the nationalist pride that the multi-billion-dollar space programme engenders.

China launched its first satellite in 1970 but human spaceflight took decades longer – with Yang Liwei becoming the country’s first “taikonaut” in 2003.

Under President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2012, China’s “space dream” has been put into overdrive.

A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019, a global first. The official Xinhua news agency described the latest mission as one of the most challenging and complicated in China’s aerospace history.

Chang’e-5 landed on the Moon on December 1. During two days on the Moon, it collected two kilogrammes of material in an volcanic area called Mons Ruemker.