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China completes its first-ever docking in lunar orbit

Spacecraft orbiting the moon
This picture taken and released on December 6, 2020 by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) via CNS shows the orbiter of China's Chang'e-5 lunar probe approaching the ascender. A Chinese probe carrying samples from the lunar surface successfully docked on December 6 with a spacecraft orbiting the moon, in another space first for the nation, state media reported. China National Space Administration (CNSA) via CNS / AFP

SHANGHAI, Dec 6, 2020 (AFP) – A Chinese probe carrying samples from the lunar surface successfully docked Sunday with a spacecraft orbiting the moon, in another space first for the nation, state media reported.

Orbiter
This combination of two pictures created and released on December 6, 2020 by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) via CNS shows an illustration (top) and a photo (bottom) of the ascender of China’s Chang’e-5 lunar probe completing rendezvous and docking with the orbiter-returner combination.

The maneuver was part of the ambitious Chang’e-5 mission — named after a mythical Chinese Moon goddess — to bring back the first lunar samples in four decades.

The cargo capsule carrying lunar rocks and soil lifted off from the surface on Thursday, and docked with the orbiter on Sunday morning, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

Xinhua said it was China’s first “rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit”.

The cargo capsule’s departure from the lunar surface on Thursday was also a first: the first liftoff of a Chinese craft from an extraterrestrial body.

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The capsule transferred the moon samples to the orbiter, which will separate and return to Earth, Xinhua said.

China is looking to catch up with the United States and Russia after taking decades to match their achievements, and has poured billions into its military-run space program.

Its space agency said previously that “before liftoff, the Chinese flag was raised on the moon’s surface”.

Scientists hope the samples from Chang’e-5 will help them learn more about the Moon’s origins and volcanic activity on its surface.

If the return journey is successful, China will become only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, following the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. dma/qan Agence France-Presse