China is planning to bring back minerals from the moon for the first time since the 1970s after launching its most ambitious lunar mission.
The Chang’e 5 mission began before dawn on Tuesday with the launch of the Long March 5, a rocket used for lifting heavy cargo into orbit, from the Wenchang launch centre on the southern island province of Hainan, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
The unmanned mission aims to deposit a probe on the moon and drill into an unexplored volcanic mound. A robotic arm will reach down to retrieve about 2kg of rocks and soil.
A vehicle carrying the material will then take off from the moon’s surface and rendezvous with a capsule that will carry them back to Earth. The capsule is expected to touch down in northern China’s Inner Mongolia in mid-December.
The rock and soil samples will allow Chinese scientists, who do not have access to minerals collected by Nasa, to gain a greater understanding of the moon’s history and composition.
Yin Zhihao, an academic at Beihang University in Beijing, said the mission marked the final step in the “orbit, land, and return” national strategy for lunar exploration.
“Its success is vital to the subsequent establishment of the Chinese space station and the progress of the manned moon landing,” he said.
The Chang’e 6, the next stage of China’s lunar exploration programme that will also collect samples, is set to take place within the next five years.
China’s space programme has accelerated over the past decade, drawing level with the achievements of the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War space race.
Chinese astronauts and engineers have also racked up a series of unique milestones, such as the longest crewed space mission and a landing on the far side of the moon. Beijing wants to launch its own space station by 2022.
Despite Beijing’s insistence that its ambitions are peaceful, China’s growing status as a space superpower has raised fears in Europe and the US of an emerging space arms race.
President Donald Trump launched a “space force” last year and US officials have raised the alarm about China’s GPS-rival, known as Beidou, being used to support an extraterrestrial conflict.
“We hope China shares its data with the global scientific community to enhance our understanding of the Moon,” Nasa said on Twitter in response to the launch.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing