China’s latest Chang'e 5 T1 mission has returned from its eight-day round trip to the Moon, completing a major milestone on China’s roadmap to return a Moon rock to Earth.
Launched on 23 October atop a Long March 3C rocket, the probe completed a flyby around the Moon before swinging back to Earth to test a re-entry capsule and its heat protection and descend capabilities.
The capsule touched down as planned in the north of China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region at around 6am local time on Saturday.
Chinese officials said the data gathered during the mission should help researchers design and build a capsule that will bring lunar rocks and dirt back to Earth, which China hopes to accomplish by 2017.
According to the Chinese state-owned Xinhua news agency, the capsule survived the challenging mission in good shape.
During its flight it faced extreme conditions, hurtling through space at 40,000km/h.
The spacecraft carried a private European payload built by Luxembourg-based company LuxSpace. The 4M payload – a radiation experiment and small radio transmitter – kept transmitting signals throughout the journey to the Moon and back, with radio amateurs around the world invited to listen to its messages.
The payload, however, did not return to Earth and stayed attached to the rocket’s upper stage.
The Chang'e 5 T1 mission was another major milestone in China’s ambitious space programme. After delivering a small rover on the lunar surface last year, China plans to deliver a rock sample to Earth with a spacecraft launching in 2017 and ultimately aims to put people on the Moon in the 2020s.