A Chinese probe sent to the moon to retrieve the first lunar samples in four decades landed successfully on Tuesday, the Beijing Space Agency said.
China has poured billions into its military-controlled space program, with hopes of having a manned space station by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the moon.
The goal of the latest mission is to shovel up moonstones and earth to help scientists learn about the Moon’s origin, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.
The Chang’e-5 spacecraft – named after the mythical Chinese moon goddess – “landed on the nearest side of the moon late Tuesday,” the state media agency Xinhua reported, citing China’s national space agency.
If the return trip is successful, China is only the third country to have collected samples from the moon after the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.
The probe entered the Moon’s orbit on Saturday after a 112-hour journey from Earth, Xinhua said, after a rocket carried it into space from China’s southern Hainan province last week.
It is collecting two kilograms of surface material in a previously unexplored area known as the Oceanus Procellarum – or “Sea of Storms” – which consists of a large lava plain, according to the scientific journal Nature.
The collection will take place on a Monday – equivalent to about 14 Earth days.
Its lunar samples will then be returned to Earth in a capsule programmed to land in northern China’s Inner Mongolia later in December, according to the US space agency NASA.
The mission is technically challenging and involves several innovations not seen during previous attempts to collect moonstones, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher Jonathan McDowell told AFP last month.
Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream”, as he calls it, have been exaggerated.
The new superpower finally wants to catch up with the United States and Russia after years of delayed matching of its space targets.
A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019 in a global first that increased Beijing’s quest to become a space power.
The latest probe is among a lot of ambitious targets set by Beijing, which include creating a super-powerful rocket that can deliver payloads heavier than NASA and the private rocket company SpaceX can handle, a lunar base and a permanently manned space station.
China’s astronauts and scientists have also talked about manned missions to Mars.