China’s Chang’e-5 lunar probe successfully carried out a remote-controlled rendezvous and docking manoeuvre in lunar orbit on Sunday, according to the China National Space Administration.
In the first such manoeuvre ever carried out by a Chinese spacecraft, Chang’e-5’s ascender transferred samples collected on the moon to the orbiter-returner combination in lunar orbit.
Afterwards, the spacecraft separated from the ascender and is to continue orbiting the moon awaiting the right moment to return to Earth. It is expected to land mid-December somewhere in Inner Mongolia.
Around two kilograms of lunar rock set to be returned to Earth were safely stowed in the return capsule.
Researchers hope the samples, the first to be returned to Earth in 44 years, will provide new information about the volcanic activity of the moon.
This is the first time a docking manoeuvre in orbit has been successful without an astronaut present since the US and Soviet moon landings in the 60s and 70s, when the United States and the Soviet Union collected the last samples from the moon.
“The Moon is a big place with differences in terrain. Returning samples from different areas helps us to understand the formation and structure of the Moon,” Australian space expert Morris Jones told dpa.
“This mission also helps China in its long-term goal of landing astronauts on the Moon,” Jones added.
Chang’e 5, named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, was launched in late November from the space port in Wenchang on the southern Chinese island of Hainan.
The space module landed on the moon on Tuesday and started to scoop up rock samples on Wednesday, leaving the moon the following day.
The moon mission is another important step in China’s ambitious space programme that also includes building its own space station by 2022 and sending an exploration mission to Jupiter by 2029.