Chinese capsule returns to Earth carrying moon rocks

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In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, recovery crew members film the capsule of the Chang'e 5 probe after its successful landed in Siziwang district, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. A Chinese lunar capsule returned to Earth on Thursday with the first fresh samples of rock and debris from the moon in more than 40 years. (Ren Junchuan/Xinhua via AP)

BEIJING – A Chinese lunar capsule returned to Earth on Thursday with the first fresh rock samples from the moon in more than 40 years, offering the possibility of new insights into the history of the solar system and marking a new landmark for China's rapidly advancing space program.

The capsule of the Chang’e 5 probe landed just before 2 a.m. (1800 GMT Wednesday) in the Siziwang district of the Inner Mongolia region, the China National Space Administration reported.

The capsule had earlier separated from its orbiter module and performed a bounce off Earth’s atmosphere to reduce its speed before passing through and floating to the ground on parachutes. Following recovery, the capsule and its cargo of samples were flown to the space program's campus in Beijing to begin the process of disassembly and analysis, the space administration said.

The mission achieved new firsts for the lunar exploration program in collecting samples, launching a vehicle from the moon's surface and docking it with the capsule to return the samples to Earth, the administration said.

“As our nation's mostly complex and technically groundbreaking space mission, Chang'e 5 has achieved multiple technical breakthroughs ... and represents a landmark achievement," it said.

Two of the Chang’e 5’s four modules set down on the moon on Dec. 1 and collected about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of samples by scooping them from the surface and drilling 2 meters (about 6 feet) into the moon’s crust. The samples were deposited in a sealed container that was carried back to the return module by an ascent vehicle.

Much to the amusement of viewers, footage run by state broadcaster CCTV showed a furry white animal, possibly a fox or rodent, running in front of the capsule as it lay on the ground, stopping briefly as if to inquire into the unfamiliar object.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in a statement read out at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, called it a major achievement that marked a great step forward for China's space industry. Xi expressed hope that mission participants would continue to contribute toward building China into a major space power and national rejuvenation, state-run Xinhua News Agency said.