A Chinese space probe on Wednesday began drilling on the surface of the moon hours after landing, in an ambitious attempt to bring back the first lunar samples in four decades.

China has poured billions into its military-run space program, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and of eventually sending humans to the moon.

The latest mission's goal is to collect lunar rocks and soil to help scientists learn about the moon's origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.

The Chang'e-5 spacecraft — named for the mythical Chinese moon goddess — touched down on the near side of the moon on Tuesday, and is now gathering samples from the surface, the China National Space Administration said.

If the return journey is successful, China will be 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 mission is the first attempt to bring lunar samples back to Earth since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 did so in 1976.

The Chinese probe entered the moon's orbit on Saturday after a 112-hour journey from Earth, Xinhua said, after a rocket carried it into space from China's southern Hainan province last week.

It is to collect 2 kilograms (4.5 pounds) of material in a previously unexplored area known as Oceanus Procellarum — or "Ocean of Storms" — which consist of a vast lava plain, according to the science journal Nature.

Xinhua reported the probe was designed to collect samples from the lunar surface as well as drill below it to ensure a diverse array of specimens.

The collection will take place over the course of one lunar day — equivalent to around 14 Earth days.

The lunar samples are then to be returned to Earth in a capsule programmed to land in northern China's Inner Mongolia region later in December, according to U.S. space agency NASA.

The mission is technically challenging and involves several innovations not seen during previous attempts at collecting moon rocks, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher Jonathan McDowell said last month.

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

Beijing is looking to finally catch up with the U.S. and Russia after years of belatedly matching their space milestones.

China's first satellite lifted into space on the back of a Long March rocket in 1970, while human space flight took decades longer — with Yang Liwei becoming China's first astronaut to go into space in 2003.

A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the moon in January 2019 in a global first that boosted Beijing's aspirations to become a space superpower.

The latest probe is among a slew of ambitious targets set by Beijing, which include creating a superpowerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those NASA and private rocket firm SpaceX can handle, a lunar base and a permanently crewed space station.

China's astronauts and scientists have also talked up manned missions to Mars.

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