Chinese space probe carrying lunar samples returned to Earth: state media

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This picture shows the Chang'e-5 lunar probe gathering samples on the moon, which has now returned safely to Earth

An unmanned Chinese spacecraft carrying rocks and soil from the Moon returned safely to Earth early Thursday in the first mission in four decades to collect lunar samples, the Xinhua news agency said.

The return module of the space probe known as Chang'e-5 landed in northern China's Inner Mongolia region, Xinhua said, quoting the China National Space Administration.

Beijing is looking to catch up with the US and Russia after taking decades to match its rivals' achievements and has poured billions into its military-run space programme.

The spacecraft, named after a mythical Chinese Moon goddess, landed on the Moon on December 1 and began its return voyage two days later. While on the Moon it raised the Chinese flag, China's space agency has said.

Scientists hope the samples will help them learn about the Moon's origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.

With this mission, China became only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, following the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.

This was the first such attempt since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 mission in 1976.

The spacecraft's mission was to collect two kilograms (4.5 pounds) of material in an area known as Oceanus Procellarum -- or "Ocean of Storms" -- a vast, previously unexplored lava plain, according to the science journal Nature.

Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China's "space dream", as he calls it, have been put into overdrive.

China hopes to have a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually send humans to the Moon.

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