An unmanned Chinese spacecraft carrying rocks and soil from the Moon returned safely to Earth early Thursday in the first mission in four decades to collect lunar samples, the Xinhua news agency said.
The capsule carrying the samples collected by the Chang'e-5 space probe landed in northern China's Inner Mongolia region, Xinhua said, quoting the China National Space Administration.
With this mission, China became only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, following the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.
Beijing is looking to catch up with Washington and Moscow after taking decades to match its rivals' achievements and has poured billions into its military-run space programme.
Chang'e-5, named after a mythical Chinese Moon goddess, landed on the Moon on December 1. While there, it raised the Chinese flag, the country's space agency said.
When the probe left the Moon two days later, that marked the first time that China had achieved take-off from an extraterrestrial body, it said.
The module then went through the delicate operation of linking up in lunar orbit with the part of the spacecraft that brought the specimens back to Earth.
Scientists hope the samples will help them learn about the Moon's origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.
The Chang'e-5 mission was to collect two kilograms (4.5 pounds) of material in an area known as Oceanus Procellarum -- or "Ocean of Storms" -- a vast, previously unexplored lava plain, according to the science journal Nature.
This was the first such attempt to collect such samples since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 mission in 1976.
- 'Space dream' -
Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China's "space dream", as he calls it, have been put into overdrive.
China hopes to have a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually send humans to the Moon.
China launched its first satellite in 1970, while human spaceflight took decades longer -- with Yang Liwei becoming the country's first "taikonaut" in 2003.
A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019 in a global first that boosted Beijing's aspirations to become a space superpower.
The latest probe is among a slew of ambitious targets, which include creating a powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those NASA and private rocket firm SpaceX can handle, a lunar base, a permanently crewed space station, and a Mars rover.
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