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Moon rocks arrive on Earth for the first time since 1976 as China lunar mission ends

Space race heats up
Space race heats up 08:20

For the first time in more than 40 years, a capsule has returned to Earth carrying samples of rocks from the moon — thanks to a Chinese spacecraft that touched down Wednesday afternoon. 

According to state media, a capsule from the uncrewed Chang'e 5 probe landed with its parachutes in the Siziwang district of the Inner Mongolia region just after 1:00 p.m. ET Wednesday, early Thursday morning in the region. 

Shortly after the spacecraft touched down, state media tweeted photos of a ground search and recovery team hunting for the capsule at the landing site. It also reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping has congratulated the success of the mission.  

Earlier this month, two of the spacecraft's four modules landed on the moon. They collected about 4.4 pounds of rock and soil samples from the surface after drilling about six feet into the moon's crust in a previously unexplored lava plain. 

An ascent vehicle then carried the samples, kept in a sealed container, back to the return module to complete the apparently successful mission — yet another in a series of increasingly ambitious missions for China's space program.  

On Wednesday, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's science director, tweeted a congratulatory message to China after the return of the capsule. "These samples will help reveal secrets of our Earth-Moon system and gain new insights about the history of our solar system," he said. 

While on the moon, the spacecraft — named after a mythical Chinese moon goddess — raised the Chinese flag for the first time, according to images from the China National Space Administration. It marked the third Chinese spacecraft to land on the moon and the first to take off from it again. 

Scientists plan to study the samples to look for clues about the origin of the moon and its formation. The rocks were sourced from a region called the Mons Rümker, thought to contain rocks billions of years younger than those retrieved earlier.

China has now become the third country in the world to retrieve samples from the moon, behind the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. 

The last samples returned to Earth with Russia's Luna-24 mission in 1976. Before that, U.S. Apollo astronauts brought back hundreds of pounds of moon rocks.

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