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Chang’e 5 lunar probe: Space capsule with moon rocks begins return journey to Earth

The rocks and other debris obtained by the Chinese mission may be billions of years younger than those brought back by earlier US and Soviet missions

This graphic simulation image provided by the China National Space Administration shows the orbiter and returner combination of China's Chang'e-5 probe after its separation from the ascender. (Photo credit: China National Space Administration/Xinhua via AP)

A Chinese space capsule bringing back the first moon rocks in more than four decades started its three-day return to Earth on Sunday, 13 December.

According to an AP report, the Chang’e 5 lunar probe, which had been orbiting the moon for about a week, fired up four engines for about 22 minutes to move out of the moon's orbit, the China National Space Administration said in a social media post.

The craft's lander touched down on the moon earlier this month close to a formation called the Mons Rumker, an area believed to have been the site of ancient volcanic activity. It collected about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of samples.

The return capsule is expected to land in northern China in the Inner Mongolia region after separating from the rest of the spacecraft and floating down on parachutes. The material would be the first brought back since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 probe in 1976. Luna 24, the final Soviet lunar probe, had delivered approximately six ounces (more than 170 grams) of soil.

The rocks and other debris were obtained both by drilling into the moon’s crust and scooping directly off the surface. They may be billions of years younger than those brought back by earlier US and Soviet missions, possibly offering insights into the moon’s history and that of other bodies in the solar system, the AP report added.

China has set up labs to analyze the samples for age and composition and is also expected to share some of them with other countries, as was done with the hundreds of kilograms (pounds) brought back by the U.S. and former Soviet Union.

China's space program has a series of ambitious missions underway, including a probe en route to Mars. The Chang’e lunar program, named after the ancient Chinese moon goddess, has been operating the Chang’e 4 probe on the moon’s less explored far side for the past two years.

Future plans call for returning a human to the moon and perhaps a permanent moon base. China is also building a space station to begin operating as early as 2022.

The global race to get astronauts back to the lunar surface is intensifying. Earlier this month, US space agency Nasa named 18 astronauts -- half of them women -- who will be training for the Artemis moon-landing program. The Artemis program, among other mission goals, is aiming to land the first woman on the moon by 2024.

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