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Chinese Lunar Probe Is On Its Way Back To Earth, Carrying Moon Rocks

China is days away from becoming the third country to bring moon rocks back to Earth.

China's state news agency Xinhua announced Sunday that the country's lunar probe, Chang'e-5, had completed its second orbital maneuver, and entered the "moon-Earth transfer orbit." The craft is expect to land in China's Inner Mongolia region later this week.

It's been more than 40 years since the Soviet Union last brought pieces of the moon back to our planet. The other country to bring back moon rocks is the U.S., which collected several lunar samples during the Apollo program before it ended in 1972.

The Chang'e-5 probe launched on Nov. 24, and touched down on the near side of the moon on Dec. 1. The plan was to gather more than 4 pounds of samples.

The lander's ascender module then lifted off from the moon on Dec. 3. It had to take off from the moon before the sun set, as it wasn't designed to survive the frigid temperatures of a lunar night. Sunday's orbital maneuver entailed a 22-minute burn from four engines, Chinese state media reported.

Planetary scientists are eagerly awaiting the samples, which could help them understand volcanic activity on the moon, and calibrate a technique to estimate the age of craters and other surfaces.

"This is a really audacious mission," David S. Draper, deputy chief scientist at NASA, told The New York Times. "They're going to move the ball down the field in a big way with respect to understanding a lot of things that are important about lunar history."

The mission is part of a long-term Chinese plan to explore the moon, and ultimately to potentially establish an international research station and human colony there.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").