Chinese moon probe begins return to Earth with lunar samples

China’s government space agency says the country’s lunar probe has lifted off from the moon with a cargo of lunar samples on the first stage of its return to Earth

BEIJING — A Chinese lunar probe lifted off from the moon Thursday night with a cargo of lunar samples on the first stage of its return to Earth, the government space agency reported, on what is expected to be a breakthrough mission for the rising Asian space power.

Chang’e 5, the third Chinese spacecraft to land on the moon and the first to take off from it again, is the latest in a series of increasingly ambitious missions for Beijing’s space program, which also has a spacecraft en route to Mars carrying a robot rover.

The Chang’e 5 touched down Tuesday on the Sea of Storms on the moon’s near side, on a mission to return lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since 1976.

Its ascender module lifted off from the lunar surface shortly after 11 p.m. Beijing time Thursday (1500 GMT) and was to connect with its return vehicle in lunar orbit and transfer the samples to the capsule, according to the China National Space Administration. The moon rocks and debris were sealed inside a special canister to avoid contamination.

Chang’e 5’s lander module, which remained on the moon, is equipped to both scoop samples from the surface and drill 2 meters (more than 6 feet) to retrieve materials that could provide clues to the history of the moon, Earth other planets and space features.

Upon takeoff, the lander unfurled what the space administration called the first free-standing Chinese flag on the lunar surface.

While retrieving samples was its main task, the lander is also equipped to extensively photograph the area surrounding its landing site, map conditions below the surface with ground penetrating radar and analyze the lunar soil for minerals and water content.

Chang’e 5 has revived talk of China one day sending a crewed mission to the moon and possibly building a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects.

China also launched Its first temporary orbiting laboratory in 2011 and a second in 2016. Plans call for a permanent space station after 2022, possibly to be serviced by a reusable space plane.

While China is boosting cooperation with the European Space Agency and others, interactions with NASA are severely limited by U.S. concerns over the secretive nature and close military links of the Chinese program.