A Chinese spacecraft lifted off from the moon on Thursday night with a load of lunar rocks, the first stage of its return to Earth, the government space agency reported.
Change 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 programme, which also has a orbiter and rover headed to Mars.
The Change 5 touched down on Tuesday on the Sea of Storms on the moons near side. Its mission: collect about 2 kilograms (4 pounds) of lunar rocks and bring them back to Earth, the first return of samples since Soviet spacecraft did so in the 1970s. Earlier, the US Apollo astronauts brought back hundreds of pounds of moon rocks.
The landing site is near a formation called the Mons Rumker and may contain rocks billions of years younger than those retrieved earlier.
The ascent vehicle lifted off from the moon shortly after 11pm Beijing time and was due to rendezvous with a return vehicle in lunar orbit, then transfer the samples to a capsule, according to the China National Space Administration. The moon rocks and debris were sealed inside a special canister to avoid contamination.
It wasn’t clear when the linkup would occur. After the transfer, the ascent module would be ejected and the capsule would remain in lunar orbit for about a week, awaiting the optimal time to make the trip back to Earth.
Chinese officials have said the capsule with the samples is due to land on Earth around the middle of the month. Touchdown is planned for the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, where Chinas astronauts have made their return in Shenzhou spacecraft.