A Chinese spacecraft successfully lifted off from the moon carrying a load of lunar rocks on Thursday night, marking the first stage of its return to Earth, the Associated Press reports.
In a mission known as the Chang’e 5, the lunar craft is the China’s third space vehicle to land on the moon and the first to take off from it again.
The spacecraft touched down on the moon’s Sea of Storms on Tuesday and took photos and gathered four pounds of lunar rocks over a two day period. According to the Associated Press, the Chang’e 5’s vehicle will be the first spacecraft to retrieve samples from the moon since the Soviets did so in the 1970s.
The Chang’e 5’s ascent vehicle departed from the moon shortly after 11 p.m. Beijing time on Thursday and will rendezvous with a return vehicle in lunar orbit.
The vehicle will then transfer the lunar samples into a special canister to avoid contamination, according to the China National Space Administration, the Associated Press reports. The sample-filled capsule is due to touchdown in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in the middle December.
Right before Chang’e 5’s ascent vehicle lifted off from the moon, CBS News reports that its lander unfurled the first free-standing Chinese flag ever to appear on the moon. The New York Post’s Twitter account recently posted an image of the historic moment:
Congratulations to China on the successful landing of Chang’e 5. This is no easy task. When the samples collected on the Moon are returned to Earth, we hope everyone will benefit from being able to study this precious cargo that could advance the international science community. pic.twitter.com/2xoKouf3dq— Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ) December 1, 2020
The Chang’e 5 is only the latest of a series of increasingly ambitious missions executed by Beijing’s space program which, according to CBS News, also has a rover and an orbiter currently en route to Mars.