A Chinese space capsule bringing back the first moon rocks in more than four decades has begun its journey back to Earth on Sunday morning, The Associated Press reported.
The Chang’e 5 lunar probe left the moon’s orbit by activating four engines for about 22 minutes, the China National Space Administration said in a social media post.
The mission landed on the moon earlier this month and 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 a three-day journey.
The material would be the first brought back since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 probe in 1976.
The samples are expected to be made available to scientists from other nations, although it is unclear how much access NASA will have, given tight U.S. government restrictions on space cooperation with China.
From the rocks and debris, scientists hope to learn more about the moon, including its precise age, as well as increased knowledge about other bodies in our solar system. Collecting samples, including from asteroids, is an increasing focus of many space programs and China’s mastery of the technology once again places it among the leading nations operating in space.
U.S. astronauts with NASA’s Apollo space program brought back 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of lunar samples from 1969 to 1972, some of which is still being analyzed and experimented on.
The Chang’e 5 flight is China’s third successful lunar landing. Its predecessor, Chang’e 4, was the first probe to land on the moon’s little-explored far side.
The latest flight includes collaboration with the European Space Agency, which is helping to monitor the mission.
China’s space program has proceeded more cautiously than the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s, which was marked by fatalities and launch failures.
In 2003, China became the third country to send an astronaut into orbit on its own after the Soviet Union and the United States.