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The orbiter of China's Chang'e-5 lunar probe approaches the ascender
The orbiter of China's Chang'e-5 lunar probe approaches the ascenderImage: China National Space Administrat/AFP/Getty Images

China completes first docking in lunar orbit

December 6, 2020

A Chinese probe carrying lunar samples back to earth for the first time in almost 45 years has docked with a spacecraft orbiting the moon. The maneuver was part of the ambitious Chang'e-5 mission.


A Chinese probe transferred rocks it gathered from the moon to an orbiter on Sunday in preparation for returning samples to Earth for the first time in almost 45 years, the country's space agency announced.

The cargo capsule of the Chang'e lander — named after a mythical Chinese Moon goddess — docked with a remote-controlled spacecraft orbiting the moon at 5:42 a.m. local time Sunday (2142 GMT/UTC Saturday), state media reported.

A container with 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rocks was moved to the orbiter 30 minutes later.

The China National Space Administration released a photo taken by the orbiter showing the ascent stage rocket approaching for a rendezvous.

Xinhua news agency said it was China's first "rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit."

A simulated image of the ascender of Chang'e-5 spacecraft blasting off from the lunar surface
A simulated image of the ascender of Chang'e-5 spacecraft blasting off from the lunar surfaceImage: China National Space Administration/Xinhua/AP/picture alliance

The capsule carrying the rock samples is due to land in the Inner Mongolia region in mid-December and if it succeeds, China will be the third country after the United States and the former Soviet Union to bring moon rocks to Earth.

They will be the first fresh samples of the lunar surface obtained by scientists since the Soviet Luna 24 probe in 1976.

Uncovering the mysteries of the moon

Scientists hope the samples from Chang'e-5 will help them learn more about the Moon's origins and volcanic activity on its surface.

The Chang'e-5 launched 12 days ago from the country's Wenchang spaceport on Hainan island. The lander reached the moon on Tuesday and started to scoop up rock samples a day later before blasting off from the lunar surface on Thursday.

The departure from the moon was another first for China — the first liftoff of a Chinese craft from an extraterrestrial body.

China has launched a series of increasingly ambitious space missions including a probe en route to Mars and the development of a reusable spaceplane.

The plans include the return of a human to the moon five decades after American astronauts first landed there.

China also wants to build its own space station by 2022 and is working to send an exploration mission to Jupiter by 2029.

mm/sms (AFP, AP, dpa)

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